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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Taken by the Cowgirl" & "Sex With the Lawyer" & "Loving

(3 Book Romance Bundle)

Taken By The Cowgirl

Sex With The Lawyer

Loving Him Peacefully

Copyright 2016

Published by Carla Davis at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Taken By The Cowgirl

Sex With The Lawyer

Loving Him Peacefully

Taken By The Cowgirl

by

Alice Parker

Copyright © 2014 by Alice Parker

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Taken By The Cowgirl

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording and faxing, or by any information storage and retrieval system by anyone but the purchaser for their own personal use.

This book may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Alice Parker, except in the case of a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages for the sake of a review written for inclusions in a magazine, newspaper, or journal—and these cases require written approval from Alice Parker prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

I locked up the barn and made it into my truck just as the sky opened up and gave the thirsty ground what it had been yearning for. Before I was even able to turn my key, blinding white lightning and thunder rolled over the Dixon Ranch illuminating the cab of my truck. Ever since I was a child my soul had always been in tune with the lightning storms of Eastern Oregon. They were always there when I was stuck in a rut and needed a jumpstart or to serve as a reminder that sometimes the plan of the universe will always find a way.

Mother Nature has always held her finger on my pulse, sensing when my low-battery sign was flashing or when I was stuck in neutral. She would send me a lightning storm to remind me where I came from and what should be most important in my world. In my foolish youth, I had turned a blind eye to these storms, which often led to learning the hard way. As I matured and became a mother, I had learned to listen to these storms, heed their warnings and take in all the knowledge they could provide me before the sun came out.

Tonight was no exception. I sat in the cab of my truck and felt the nostalgia enter my bones. I let my heart and mind wander through the highs, lows and the twisted maze of emotions this ranch had taken me through over the years. I knew that my thoughts would go directly to the painful emotions caused after Tanner Dixon left this ranch and my life. As much as I wanted to argue with the storm I knew there had to be a reason I was being asked to remember that pain. Actions and reactions from well over a decade ago still resonated in the hollow portion of my heart as I remembered Tanner. You better have a good reason for this Mother Nature!

The sky cracked with a bolt of lightning and I heard the sounds of protest from the horses in the barn. Those horses were my livelihood and this ranch that I ran every day with care and dedication should by all rights be Tanner’s. His parents, also hurt and scorned by Tanner’s abandonment, had hired me to run the ranch so they could prepare for their retirement. They had long since given on up on their prodigal son’s return home.

The Dixon’s had served and continued to serve as my second family. As children, Tanner and I were inseparable. I was an only child and so was Tanner, which made us fast friends. It did not hurt that I had been the girl holding the frog and beating the boys in all matter of dirt warfare. This, and the fact that I refused to play with dolls, allowed me the all access pass to the boy’s fort. For years, I was on top of the world and the envy of all the girls in town.

Then everything changed. The boys started noticing girls and the girls were less likely to think the boys had cooties. No matter how I wished my body to stop blossoming, I was at the mercy of my DNA. I became a young woman and I quickly found out that even if they wanted to pretend I was still one of them, they started to notice that my tops were filling out and I took my cue to exit the boy’s club. The boys went on to chase girls and transform into awkward teenage boys, but they always had my back and there was never a time where I felt unprotected.

Then there was Tanner. As soon as my hormones started to flare up I began to notice that he was gorgeous, smart and kind. My brotherly love for him began changing and I was in full crush mode by high school. Tanner however was slow to come around to the idea of me as anything but his best friend. One day while at the river swimming I saw the change in his eyes. Tanner had finally realized that I was not just a tomboy, but also a girl and a girl he wanted as his own. We became the high school sweethearts you love to hate. There was never any doubt that we would be together.

It was a natural progression of our relationship, like an extension of our arms. Not one guy or girl attempted to break us apart and everyone thought we would be together forever; as was mentioned throughout our yearbooks at the end of each school year. We were prom king and queen and even our teachers mentioned how wonderful it was to see such an intense young love.

I believed that Tanner was my happy ending and there had never been a question in my mind that he was to be my future. We had been together as far back as I remembered and any dreams I had always had Tanner as a star. Tanner would graduate from college, come home and run his parent’s horse ranch; we would be married and begin a family of our own. I was naïve and young love while pure and wonderful, is also the cause of complete blindness when it comes to seeing the actual direction of your life.

Unfortunately for me I was the blind one in the relationship and Tanner had not bought into my version of our fantasy future. Even though we never actually had a specific conversation about what our future would look like, we both spoke as if there was no expiration date on our relationship. Looking back, I realized that I was the only one in that state of mind. Tanner however had left his mind open to other experiences.

I logically knew that Tanner had to go away to college to learn how to run the ranch as a viable business; but my heart strained watching him enter a foreign world and leave me holding on to the future I was so invested in. The day he left we had sat on his porch swing trying to find the right words to say goodbye. There had been a wicked thunderstorm the previous night and there were tree branches down throughout the ranch. I should have known that something big was about to happen in my life. At eighteen, you only see that the love of your life is leaving to start a life in a world you will never be a part of.

Finally, his mom came out and said that it was time to leave for Portland. Tanner stood and held me in his arms, my tears staining the front of his shirt. His eyes filled with tears as he held my face and kissed me goodbye. I stood on his porch, unable to move. I cried until there were no more tears to help me grieve. Today I know I was grieving because the moment Tanner drove away was the moment my life changed forever.

At first we both did everything we could to keep our relationship strong and the lines of communication open. His voice began taking on a new level of excitement when he described what he was learning in his business classes. I was thrilled he was finding his place at college and jealous that I was not a part of his new life. College was supposed to be a time to find yourself and try new things I read in books and magazines. Well Tanner had accepted these challenges with open arms.

Our contact began to wither as he took to returning my calls several days after I had left messages. When we did finally talk, the conversations were superficial and more polite than loving. It was a regression back to a friendship I believed had blossomed into true love. Tanner was starting his process of letting me go.

The more Tanner became ingrained in this other reality, the more he pulled away from me. It felt like I was a reminder of what he wanted so desperately to distance himself from. He had never told me he was unhappy at home or that he wanted to move and try new experiences. Today I often wonder whether he even knew before leaving home and tasting what another place could give him.

Our conversations continued to become indifferent, talking less about what we were doing or feeling to how the ranch was and what classes were like. While we never had the ‘we should see other people’ talk, we ceased to talk about ‘us’. Every time Tanner called or more likely returned my call, I felt the hammer above my heart waiting to shatter it into a million pieces. During that time I wished I were one of those ditzy girls that lives in the clouds and dreams of being a Disney princess. Unfortunately, I lived on the more realistic side of life and had watched our relationship dwindle after Tanner left for college.

It certainly did nothing to help that we only physically saw each other a few times during the entire four years. It was not that Tanner’s college was so far away; it was that I was working to help support my family and weekends or even holidays were few and far between. For his part, Tanner made excuses for not coming home, such as studying or an important on campus event. When I tried to visit, he was suddenly too busy and could not spare the time to keep our relationship whole.

We struggled in this shell of a relationship through his college years. I did not ask if he was with other girls and frankly I did not want to know. I was faithful to him and never strayed even when weeks would pass between our conversations. I held on tight to any sliver of hope that we would make it through this trial.

When his college graduation arrived, it was understood that I would travel with his parents to celebrate this important achievement in his life. In fact, his mom and I had been planning the trip for months. Both of his parents were hoping graduation would bring Tanner home where we all felt he belonged.

I had saved for weeks to buy a sexy but tasteful dress for the ceremony. I suppose it was part of my last ditch effort to woo Tanner back into my arms. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach on the ride to Eugene wondering how Tanner and I would re-connect, if we could still connect at all. It became almost a blind date since Tanner had obviously changed since he had been away.

At graduation, Tanner was polite but removed both physically and emotionally. His eyes were distant and his mannerisms were robotic and I felt like a complete outsider. Tanner never had a problem with public displays of affection and he used to be the initiator most of the time. A brief peck on the cheek was the only physical contact Tanner gave me and I felt so awkward I did not dare to touch him.

There was no tour of his apartment or the neighborhood he had spent the last four years. When we walked across campus Tanner kept his head down and only pointed out buildings when his mom asked. It was like dealing with a skeleton version of the Tanner I knew and loved. After the fact, I wondered if he just forgot how to be the Tanner we expected and was stuck in limbo between the old Tanner and the new Tanner.

The ceremony was long and I could see Tanner nervously looking back at us throughout the diploma presentation. Even though our relationship was strained, I was so proud of him as he accepted his diploma. He had accepted and completed this challenge and no one could take that away from him. For an instant, as he walked across the stage I caught his eyes and my heart hitched like it used to when we would catch each other peeking. The moment was fleeting and his facial expression quickly turned back into stone.

Following the ceremony we posed for what could only be described as awkward family photos. It was obvious his parents sensed a change in their son’s behavior and from the look on his dad’s face, he was not happy about it. I stood off to the side wondering where to go from here. After the hoopla, the Dixons took Tanner and I out for lunch at a horrible chain restaurant. It would surprise me if they noticed how bad it was, but they were probably just ready to get the day over with.

We were seated in a booth so Tanner was close enough that I could smell the man I fell in love with and his knee was forced to touch mine. Just this brief touch was enough to drive me insane. I had not been in Tanner’s arms for a long time and I craved the attention only he could give me. Trying hard to concentrate on the menu I realized that actually he did not smell the same at all. Something had shifted and that is when my world finally took its tumble.

It was as if Tanner held the last Jenga piece and he pulled it without a care in the world. We had all been making small talk about the ranch and the food had just been delivered. Tanner casually announced between bites of a greasy hamburger that he was not coming home but moving to Portland to take a job in the financial industry. I stopped breathing and there was silence around the table. I can still hear the crash of the future I had painstakingly put together for us collapse.

To say I was stunned and hurt would be an understatement. Tanner knew he held the key to my heart and yet he had just thrown it off the bridge. I tried to catch Tanner’s gaze, but he successfully avoided looking at me for the rest of the meal. It was almost as if he was ashamed of his decision but would not or could not explain his reasoning.

His parents looked hurt and frustrated and my heart, what was left of it, went out to them. They had been counting on Tanner taking over the ranch and he had disappointed them. I had to give them credit though, because they both tried to keep the conversation going for the rest of our time in Eugene. They were strong folks and Tanner had taken them for granted. I would not have been so forgiving in their position.

After lunch, we silently drove back to Tanner’s apartment. He did not invite us in and his mom took that as a sign we should be heading back. I felt numb and my brain could not even fathom this scenario. Each of his parents hugged him and wished him good luck in Portland. They did not speak of the future or the pain he had brought them. He seemed to hug them back, but he never met their eyes. He did manage to say a thank you for coming as they turned to walk away.

His parents climbed back in the truck to give us a minute alone. My heart was beating so loud I was sure Tanner could hear it and my stomach was tied up in knots. I had no idea what to do. Tanner was IT for me. What do you do when your one and only slips away? Worse yet, what do you do when they choose to go away? I had never felt so much fear of the unknown as I did at that moment. Tanner stood in front of me avoiding my eyes and shuffling his feet.

I put my hand up to Tanner’s face and forced him to look at me. While he only held my gaze for a second, it was long enough to see that he had made his decision and no amount of pleading or crying was going to change his mind. I kissed him lightly on the cheek, whispered, “I love you” and walked away. Tanner had made his choice and I loved him enough to respect it.

The drive home was heart-wrenching as his mom tried to hide her tears and his dad’s face maintained a cold and detached look. I had not shed a tear since we left Tanner staring after us, but my heart had been shattered and I could not begin to figure out how to glue it back together. I felt an eerie calm descend upon the truck cab and embrace each of us as we began accepting that the Tanner, we knew and loved, was gone.

Tanner kept his word and moved to Portland two weeks after graduation. He forwarded his address to his mom and dad who passed it along to me. It sat on my refrigerator for years staring at me as I grabbed for the ice cream. Even though I was often tempted, I never used it. No postcards, no letters and no phone calls. Tanner had not reached out once since moving to Portland and I chose to save myself the sorrow of finding him happy in his new life. Finally, one Valentine’s Day, I ripped it to shreds and threw it in the fireplace.

Out of pity or kindness the Dixons allowed me to continue working at their ranch. I had maintained the job while Tanner was away to stay close to him but also because I felt strongly that the ranch was where I belonged. I was meant to live in the country and wake up every morning to hard work. This was where I needed to be and where I was happy. I was a hard worker and it never went unnoticed by Mr. Dixon. They continued to be my family even without Tanner to bind us.

Tanner did not come home. At holidays, he sometimes invited his parents to travel to Portland; but even that had stopped happening in recent years. Tanner had always been such a family-oriented guy and his complete disregard for his aging parents was a diversion from anything I thought Tanner was capable of doing. Tanner Dixon had become a ghost and after a while, he faded from my everyday life. I shook my soul alive and moved on.

Now as I drove home and the lightning illuminated the land surrounding me I remembered when my heart had finally accepted that Tanner was not coming home. I knew that I would always love Tanner, but I also knew that I could not count on him to give me the future and the family I so desperately wanted. Oddly enough I had been standing below the ladder of the mare loft. I was kicking snow off my boots and a piece of wood fell from the loft and cracked me in the head. When I picked the piece up, I saw that it was one of the slats that Tanner had etched our initials on one night when we were cuddling up in the loft.

Then it hit me that it was over and this piece of wood finally broke off to give me a sign that our time was up and there was no more TD & LB 4 EVER. Time had changed us and the foundation of our relationship had become nothing more than a faded memory etched in my mind. My spirit and heart had been broken, but I was determined to live the life I was given. So I moved on.

A year after Tanner’s move to Portland I met Christopher Adams. He was handsome, hard working and I convinced myself that he was perfect husband material. He made me feel loved, wanted and desired and told me that he wanted to make me happy and have tons of kids that would remind him of me. Sure he was wrapped up in his work and constantly argued with his family, but he was financially secure. Perhaps he sometimes criticized the way I dressed or belittled the work I did out on the ranch but he was only trying to inspire me to be a better person. Our courtship took the fast track and we were married and I was pregnant with our first child in just a year’s time. To be fair, some folks tried to warn me to pay attention to the warning signs and red flags. However, all I really knew was Tanner was gone and I was being a given a shot at a family and I was taking it.

In hindsight, I should have spent a bit more time exploring the marriage material portion of his personality since he apparently felt differently about the vows we exchanged. I heard forever and he heard for right this second. I immediately began planning for the baby and making our house, a cabin his parents let us live in, a home. Christopher worked late nights and came home drunk more often than not. He was never physically abusive, but it became apparent early on that the man, I thought I married, was not the man I was sharing a bed with.

There was a lightning storm the night our son was born and when I stared into Gage’s blue eyes, I knew that this was why I had met Christopher and nothing else from our ill-fitted relationship mattered. I had concentrated on the storm during delivery and at the moment of his birth, I saw that Gage was my future. Gage was my angel and he filled my heart with more love than I ever thought possible.

This thought alone helped me through the tough times ahead as a single mother when Christopher left three months after Gage was born. I wanted to act surprised that he left but in reality, I had seen it coming from the moment I told Christopher I was pregnant. He had been looking for a way to convince his parents he was mature enough to inherit their money and I had been the perfect alibi. However, when I informed him he was going to be a father his face had turned an unnatural shade of green and he had run from the house not to be seen for two days. So when he decided to finally disappear on us I was less than shocked.

I embraced motherhood and Gage became my world. I learned how to juggle, sleep with my eyes open and take a shower in two minutes. I continued to work part-time at the ranch, bringing Gage to work when the weather was pleasant enough and using my parents as day care providers when I had to leave him at home. I wanted Gage to grow up knowing the land and understanding that hard work was the only way to make your dreams come true. He did have half of his father’s genes and I wanted to be he got my work ethic.

Once Gage was old enough to go to Pre-School full-time I took over running the Dixon’s ranch. Tanner’s parents were eager to retire in Florida and I made every possible effort to show them I was capable and ready to take over for them, since it was painfully obvious that Tanner was not coming home. Gage started elementary school and the Dixons were very flexible with my hours when Gage required more hands on parenting. It was an exhausting few years but worth every second.

Even today as I pulled up our driveway I remembered the days I played mom and dad in Gage’s life. From coaching baseball to healing the scrapped knees, I did it all. At the same time, I was getting deeper and deeper into running the ranch, which required all my remaining energy. It probably goes without saying, but my love life had not been a priority for a long time.

My time was spent being the best mother (and father when necessary) to Gage and preparing myself to take over the Dixon Ranch. My own family had moved away right after Gage turned school age. I am pretty sure my mom only stuck around that long because she did not want to see me in the poor house trying to pay for day care. I appreciated all they had done for me and I tried to stay in contact as much as possible, sending pictures of Gage every school year.

That left Gage and I to fend for ourselves and we happened to like it that way. We had each other and that was enough for me. Introducing someone else into the picture at this stage would be an endeavor and my dream of romantic love had faded long ago. Gage had always been open with me and while we were not attached at the hip, I felt that our relationship was on solid ground and that he was happy with just a mom. I certainly was not looking forward to the teenage years.

As I parked the truck, there was a final flash of lightning cutting the sky in half. I felt the bolt straight down my spine. I never ignored the lightning. It was like Mother Nature’s version of sending an omen. When the storm physically affected me like this one had, I paid attention. There was never an omen spelled out in the lightning strikes or dark clouds in the shape of animals. It was a feeling, an instinct that I always carried with me to be prepared for what fate had in store for me next. Tonight I had an overwhelming feeling that whatever was on the horizon was going to change my path forever. Bring it on Mother Nature. Bring it on.

I felt a heaviness fill my bones, but I shook it off filing my perceptions into the back of my mind for further thought at a later time. As of right now, I was just a mom who was in terrible need of a shower, a hearty dinner and a hug from her son.

Chapter Two

Since Gage had been strong enough to hold a small pail I would wake him every morning before the sun came up to go and help me feed the horses. When he was younger this used to be the highlight of his day. He even made a point to talk to anyone who would listen about how awesome his chores were. Then he turned twelve and everything I thought I knew about him and parenting was flipped on its head.

It instantly became not cool to hang out with your mom, even if the only eyes that saw you had four legs and a mane. Sleep became second in his life only after eating everything in reach. He was growing up and all I could do was watch and hope that he took my guidance and discipline for what it was, unconditional love. A father figure would no doubt be a benefit during this time but for now I would have to be happy he was still talking to me.

This morning was proving to be one of those days when Gage chose to struggle with me about getting up and it was all I could do not to bop him over the head with my boot. After threatening to cut his video game time, I finally got him up and dressed. We loaded into the truck and headed over to feed the Dixon’s horses.

Feeding the horses was one of the most important jobs on the ranch and one of my personal favorites. Their food was the main way I had to influence how healthy the horses would be and how attractive they would be for breeding. I had been trying out different combinations of food to find the perfect mix that would help strengthen the horse’s joints and also provide conditioning for their coats.

A few months ago I stumbled rather by accident onto what I hope was the best formula. So far it was working exactly as I had hoped. The horses were not having joint issues and their coats were shiny and gorgeous. If all went well I had dreams of selling the new feed to neighboring horse ranchers. It would be a great additional source of income for the ranch, although Mr. Dixon had already warned me that he would not take any of the profits. He treated Gage like a grandson and he hoped I would use the money for a college fund.

Once we reached the barns and Gage saw all of his favorite horses, his attitude changed completely and he became a kid again. The horses learned to anticipate Gage and secretly I think they waited for him and the sugar cubes he carried in his pockets. As he had grown in size feeding time had become more efficient and we were able to complete the task in half the time. I loved watching Gage work with the horses. Mr. Dixon had always said I had a way about me with the horses. They reacted to me in a way that signaled their respect and understanding. Tanner used to tease me about being a horse whisperer, but watching Gage I was happy to see he inherited this talent. I knew he could not stay a child forever, but in the meantime, I was going to enjoy every second.

When the last horse had been fed, we heard the barn begin bustling with the ranch hands starting their day by mucking the stalls. As the sun poked through the horizon I took Gage home to hop in the shower and get on the school bus. The shower used to be a fight, but I am pretty sure he started noticing girls last summer and his outlook on hygiene changed completely. As much as I was not looking forward to “the talk” I was at least happy he washed some of that dirt down the drain rather than deposit it on my couch.

The storm last night was nowhere to be found in the blue sky this morning. Even though I still had the nagging concern about last night’s storm, I could find nothing wrong with how I was feeling this morning. Rather it was one of the first times in a long time I felt light and free. Today could be a good day! With a smile and the sun beginning to warm my face, I drove back to the ranch to hand out the day’s work orders.

Mr. Dixon had been the head of the ranch since his father retired and left it to him. When he decided to start seriously grooming me to take over for him, we both decided it would be best if I took over piece by piece. This would give the men some time to get used to the idea and hopefully by the time I was in charge they would not even notice the difference.

***

It had certainly taken some time for the ranch hands to get used to a woman running things. I started out doing each part of Mr. Dixon’s job behind the scenes so when I finally got in front of the men all they saw was pure confidence. As they got to know me, they began to understand that I lived to get my hands dirty and princess was not an adjective used to describe me. I always heard them out when they had problems with the way I was running things, but they quickly got on board or I tossed them. It was a tough crowd, but the guys that were on my staff were like family and I played both mother and boss most days. I would trust each of them with my life but most days I just trusted them to get the job done.

After handing out the duties of the day, I began my day’s work repairing the fencing on one of the three outdoor arenas we used to exercise the horses. I was deep in concentration when I heard the crunch of gravel indicating there was a car coming up the drive. The wind switched directions and a cool breeze made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I knew I was not expecting anyone today so I stopped hammering and looked up just in time to see a black pickup truck come to a stop near the ranch house. I squinted but could only make out that the figure was tall and male. Another cool breeze hit me and I shivered. What in the world is going on weather? I did not connect the breeze with the storm last night and I figured the Dixons just had a guest and I continued to finish the fence.

Group lunchtime was one of the things Mrs. Dixon had refused to give up as they had slowly given the reins of the ranch over to me. She still cooked and fed every single ranch worker a hearty and delicious meal each afternoon. I was always shocked to see the boys file in with clean hands on otherwise filthy bodies, remove their hats and wait for her blessing to eat. I knew that when she left for Florida there would be a huge hole in the guy’s hearts. I had already been talking to her about a replacement so the transition would not seem so stark.

Chapter Three

By lunchtime, I was usually ravenous and today I quickly took my seat and waited for what smelled like Mrs. Dixon’s famous chicken and dumplings. I was already starting to drool just from the aroma. Thank you Mrs. Dixon! The men were filing in and I turned to talk to an older ranch hand about the new mare. Before I uttered a full sentence I heard a commotion coming from the direction of the kitchen. What in God’s name is going on? It would seem that Mrs. Dixon had indeed made chicken and dumplings, but it was who was serving those dumplings that had everyone at the table going crazy.

I had a strange feeling and my heart quickly leaped to my throat as I turned around and met the eyes of my first, and to be completely honest only, true love. Tanner Dixon stood in front of the table in the flesh and blood. Is this a nightmare? Please tell me this is just a dream? This was not the Tanner Dixon I knew years ago. That had been a boy and the Tanner that was standing in front of me was all man. Where was he keeping those muscles? He had always been painfully handsome. Pretty guys wanted to rough him up and girls wanted to…well you know. I had been lucky enough to be that girl for a time.

He was greeting the few workers he knew and introducing himself to those that had come on since he had left. He seemed to be smiling but although his lips were moving it never reached his eyes. Tanner and I always could feel each other with one glance. We knew each other so well that we were able to understand the feelings through the color of our eyes. What I saw before me was a beautiful man with a fake smile and shallow eyes. What happened? Who hurt my Tanner? My Tanner! I really needed to get a grip.

I began to feel lightheaded, confused and claustrophobic. The dining room was closing in as more of the ranch hands got up to shake Tanner’s hand. This is really happening. I need air. Before I even knew what I was doing I was up and headed out the door. I vaguely heard someone calling for me, but I did not look back. I needed fresh air and to absorb what I had just witnessed. I went straight to the only place that had ever given me complete comfort, the loft in the mare barn.

I made it to the barn and quickly scaled up the ladder. My breath was ragged from running and I collapsed to my knees on the floor. The loft was very simple wood and hay with a few battery operated lanterns for nighttime needs. Needs that previously been met with the man who just happened to pop back into my life. Why is this happening to me? I am over him…right?

As I lay back on the makeshift hay bed I tried to regulate my breathing hoping my heartbeat would soon follow suit. I closed my eyes and saw the lightning from the evening before cross the back of my eyelids. How could this be? Why was Tanner here? Was he just visiting or did he plan on moving back? Does he want the ranch? Does he still love me like I loved him? Whoa wait why am I thinking this way? I am a grown woman and I have earned my place running this ranch. And love? Gage was all the love I needed. The thoughts ran through my brain at warp speed no time for an answer before the next one came. Once again the storm had been right.

“I had a feeling I’d find you up here,” Tanner said in a cautious tone. I slowly opened my eyes and saw a grown-up version of the Tanner I had loved in this very loft standing above me.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked as he took a place next to me on the hay.

“I’m glad you still come here,” Tanner said quietly, “it is a special place for both of us.”

I could not avoid his eyes much longer, but I knew once I held his gaze I would be a goner. I never was able to resist Tanner’s eyes. They were the window to his soul and his best tool for getting what he wanted. I was afraid of what that would mean for me at this time in my life.

“Yes this loft held a lot of firsts for us,” I replied. Why did I bring that up? I hope he does not think I am trying to flirt with him.

We sat in silence for a minute as we each remembered the times we had spent in this loft. We were fourteen when we shared our first kiss in this loft, stolen minutes between our chores. When our lips had met we both jumped back from the electric jolt we felt. That jolt never left our kisses which had made giving them up so hard.

We also had our first fight up here over something so trivial I could never remember what it was. I did however remember the passion of our make-up make-out session following that fight. Damn he was a good kisser. Last, but certainly not least, we had made love for the first (and only) time here in this loft.

I can close my eyes and still see the night so clearly. It was a harvest moon and the barn was lit with its strange orange glow. That afternoon there had been a massive lightning storm. Unfortunately, I was not yet in tune with Mother Nature but I should have known that something big was coming. The sky cleared at evening time and the moon rose amongst the stars.

We had been dancing around the idea of making love to one another for months now. Neither of us wanted to be the initiator in case the other one really did not want to and was only doing it to please the other. I honestly did not know if I was ready. I loved Tanner and my body showed all the signs it was ready. However, if Tanner had not been leaving for college, it might not have even happened.

Tanner was leaving for college and all we knew was that we wanted our first time to be with each other. Whenever we had talked about it there was never a doubt that we would be each other’s firsts. Neither of us was willing to allow someone else that privilege.

It was awkward and embarrassing, as those things usually are, but it was also magical and special. We were cautious and curious but most importantly we both were respectful of the other’s needs. I never once regretted that night. It bound us to one another forever. You can only have your first time once. No matter what had happened between now and then we always would have that connection.

“Libby?” Tanner’s voice jarred me from my trip down memory lane.

I forced my head and my eyes to look directly at his face. The face that had haunted my dreams for years both nightmares and what few fantasies I had these days. Time had been kind to him and his beautiful features were more pronounced. The only signs that fourteen years had passed were a few fine lines and some dark circles under his eyes. These eyes that had once held the spark of excitement and a little danger but now only looked tired and lost. Where did you go Tanner?

I reached out to touch his face, cradling his cheek in my hand. When I touched his skin I felt my world settle, which unnerved me even more. I am happy. Why does he still bring me peace? I didn’t even know I needed peace!

Tanner leaned into my hand and closed his eyes. I have missed this man so much! But something just does not seem right. I could not shake the feeling that Tanner being here was not an accident, but was also not planned.

“Why Tanner?” I pleaded. “Why are you here?”

Tanner’s eyes opened and for a second I thought I saw them fill with tears. Oh no please don’t cry. I will not be able to handle you crying.

He pulled away from me and quickly said, “Things did not work out in Portland and I need to start over.” He continued, “And the only place I know to start over is here, at home.”

My mind started running in a multitude of directions trying to come up with reasons why things would have not worked out. So much could have caused him to come home and I was not even sure I wanted the whole story right now. I do not think I could handle hearing about a marriage that did not work out or a relationship he had that had gone south. Focus on what you know not what you are creating out of nothing.

Tanner waited for my response. I knew him and I knew that making the decision and then actually coming back home was difficult. This was not because his family would not welcome him back, but because he would feel like a failure. He was a proud man and to him returning would feel like a retreat with his tail between his legs. I was not going to make him feel worse by pressuring him to tell me what had went wrong. He seemed to be beating himself up enough and he did not need my help. Time will tell Libby, time will tell.

“Ok,” I responded.

I wanted to kiss and punch him at the same time. I felt happy he was back and angry with him for leaving in the first place. My head was swimming trying to catch ahold of anything that made any sense, but I kept coming up empty handed. It was almost as if I had slipped on the edge of a cliff and fell knowing there were going to be soft and hard places to land. My decisions about Tanner could decide which of these I was going to land on. Argggg what is happening to me? What decisions?

“I have no idea what to think and feel right now Tanner,” I said, standing up. All I know right now is that I have to get away from you as soon as I can.

“I assume your parents are pretty excited to have you back,” I commented as I moved toward the ladder.

“Yes they are,” Tanner answered, then asked, “are you?”

I met his gaze straight on trying to pin down the feelings fighting within my heart. Am I? Am I glad Tanner is here in front of me now?

Finally, I replied, “I honestly don’t know Tanner.”

His eyes held what looked to be pain and guilt from what I do not know. Part of me knew that I should want him to feel those horrible feelings, but another part of me wanted to be in his arms and forget the past completely. I had a strong inclination that this tug-of-war was not even close to being over.

My mind was going wild and I was barely remembering to breathe. Did I really want Tanner back in my life? For so long I had wished and hoped to be in this exact position. Now that Tanner was here before me I did not know whether I actually wanted him back. After seeing him, there was no doubt I still loved him. The question I had to answer, was whether I was still ‘in love’ with him.

“I can understand that,” Tanner replied watching as I started down the ladder.

“Libby?” Tanner called. “Mom and Dad asked me to tell you they would like to meet with you tomorrow morning after you give the work orders for the day.”

My feet reached the solid ground of the barn floor and I called up, “Tell them I’ll be there.”

I turned and headed for the stalls. Without a second thought, I saddled up my horse and took off to ride the fences. Normally this is something I would give to one of the newer hands, but today I felt the need for some fresh air and to be as far away from Tanner Dixon as possible. My mind and body had grown numb and I needed to feel the wind in my hair in order to shake my thoughts loose.

After a few miles my temper began to flare thinking of his audacity just showing up after all this time. What right did he have to arrive home looking tall, dark and ridiculously handsome? If he wants to take over the ranch where does that leave me? I could either work for him or be out of a job. And what would I do with Gage? Tanner’s arrival had completely upset my calm and orderly way of life. He seemed to have a knack for completely disintegrating all of my plans for the future

The further I rode the clearer my head got, which only lead me to finally look at the real problem at hand. I was still hopelessly in love with Tanner Dixon. I am not even sure I ever stopped loving him. I had convinced myself I loved Christopher and in some ways, I had loved him enough to make a child with him. But Tanner always has had my heart with him no matter where he had laid his head. I was hoping that I came to another conclusion but knew my fate was sealed. I have to get over Tanner Dixon because he had gotten over me years ago.

I have no idea what Tanner is thinking and whether he even had more than a passing thought of me while he was in Portland. Who knows what kind of life he has been living and who has chosen to live it with? As far as I am aware he never married and had no children that the Dixons was aware of. I did know he was aware that I had been married and had Gage.

Mrs. Dixon has probably already told half the town that Tanner is home. Gage is a smart boy and he will put two and two together when the gossip starts. Folks in town did not speak about Tanner much anymore, but Gage was aware of him because Mr. Dixon would sometimes tell Gage stories starring Tanner.

I already avoided bringing Gage to the ranch when the hands were there. I wanted him to learn the job, but their language and behavior was not something I wanted him exposed to just yet.

This was a mess of epic proportions and I was at a complete loss for where to go next with my feelings. Gage knew me and would have no problem seeing the unresolved issues between me and Tanner. He was a curious kid and since he started noticing girls last summer he had even asked if I ever thought about dating again. I had told him he was all the man I needed in my life and he seemed to be ok with that.

My phone alarm went off reminding me of the hour. I headed back to the barn to return my horse and avoided any and all signs of human life. I left for home where hopefully I would be met with a son who had avoided the town gossip tree that day. I would know more after my meeting with the Dixons tomorrow morning. Until then it would just have to be business as usual. I would not complicate either of our lives by jumping to conclusions. Maybe Tanner was just here for a visit to let the dust settle from Portland so he could go somewhere new.

As I crawled into bed and closed my eyes, I was met once again by the vision of lightning. It was a telling sign that whatever fate had in store for me it was only just beginning. With a sigh I rolled over and spent the remainder of the night in and out of sleep. Most could be blamed on nerves but when my body did give in to sleep my dreams were delightful and full of the grown-up version of Tanner Dixon.

Chapter Four

The next morning I gently nudged Gage and told him he could sleep in. He smiled sleepily and rolled over snuggling under his pillow. I was not ready to introduce him to Tanner until I knew more about the entire situation. Somehow I had a feeling that taking him to the barn this morning I would have no choice but to introduce them. I would hate for Gage to get attached and then Tanner to go away again. Gage has had enough loss in his life and I refused to set him up for what could be heartbreak.

I would do anything for Gage and protect him from any harm. Once upon a time I loved Tanner with all my heart but now a large piece of that heart was filled with love for Gage. Tanner being back at the ranch did not change that simple fact.

I found myself spending way too much time in front of the closet choosing what to wear for the day. I ended up with a nicely worn pair of jeans and a tank top underneath my favorite flannel. I tried to shake off the look he gave me in the loft last night, but my dreams were still haunted by the memories of his lips and his arms wrapped around me. I was in a heap of trouble.

I kissed Gage goodbye and headed over to the ranch to feed the horses and get the works orders ready for the day. With any luck, I would be completely busy and distracted from thoughts of Tanner and his presence here at the ranch. I even set my phone alarm to remind me of my meeting with the Dixons. My heart pounded at the thought of having to leave the ranch. I was trying not to worry, but I was brilliantly losing that battle. I pulled up to the barn, took a deep breath and began my day.

I got into a steady rhythm with the feed and the only sounds were the soft neighing of the horses. I had to work double time without Gage here to help, but the extra stress on my body was keeping my mind focused on the task at hand. It was like the eye of a storm and I could feel it growing as time ticked on. I finished the feeding and headed into my office to make sure I had all of the day’s work lined up. There was a mountain of work to be done and I was in the process of streamlining the system. Time crept by as I kept my head down and tried to work through my growing nerves.

My phone alarm reminded me that it was time to hand out the daily work. An important part of running the ranch was organizing who does what. It seems like a simple task but after you have factored in the skill level of each ranch hand and the sensitivity to detail that a job required, the process became complicated and murky at best.

As they gathered around many of the ranch hands had their heads down and were looking rather uncomfortable. I sighed because even though I knew the answer without asking, I had to assert my authority. I called out one of the young ones, “Billy what’s up?” Billy shuffled his feet and kept his head down. He own lifted his eyes to mine when I stalked over and stood directly in front of him.

“Ummm some of the guys and I,” Billy stuttered, “we were just wondering what it meant for us now that Tanner is home?”

I stepped back and looked at the guys who had been with me through thick and thin during my transition to running the ranch. They were a rough bunch of fellas, but they all had hearts of gold. I could not see Tanner being vindictive enough to fire all the guys if he took over the ranch but what did I really know about the man he had become? I had to admit that I did not know much of anything about grown-up Tanner or his current sense of right and wrong.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” I answered hoping I was telling them the truth.

“I am meeting with the Dixons this morning to sort everything out and confirm where we go from here.” I continued, “Until you hear otherwise keep your head down and do good work and there will not be any problems.”

The men grabbed their gear and headed out to begin the day’s work. Billy nodded and then went on his way. I was too worried about the tornado of emotions wrecking havoc on my own body. It was my responsibility to watch out and protect these guys and their jobs. I reminded myself that I was not operating in a vacuum and I could not be selfish in this situation.

I made a few phone calls and put in some supply orders anything to avoid checking the clock every two minutes. I procrastinated as long as I could before I had to face the music. I tidied up my office, hoping it was not my last day to use it, and headed over to the ranch house for my meeting with Dixons.

I went to the side of the house and used the wash station to clean my hands and face. My hair was pulled back so it had survived the morning so far. There was no mirror at the wash station, why would the guys ever need one, so I did my best to make sure I was clean and presentable. Who am I trying to impress The Dixons or Tanner? I took a deep breath and walked toward my fate.

I had been coming to the Dixon house since I was a child and knocking had never been a requirement for entering. Where we came from locking your door was considered an insult and I spent more of my life in this house than my own. I pushed off my boots in the mudroom and made my way into the beautiful farmhouse kitchen.

This kitchen had given me comfort when I needed it most. This is not to say that my family was horrible, but I was an only child and my parents both worked very hard supplying the surrounding horse farms with feed. This required almost all of their energy and I grew up taking care of myself. When I started hanging around the Dixon Ranch Mrs. Dixon sensed I was missing some motherly love. Through the dirt and grime, she helped me remember that I had a feminine side too. I learned to bake pies, make pot roasts and of course brew a strong cup of coffee in this very kitchen.

The aroma of that strong coffee is what greeted me now, as I saw Mrs. Dixon at the counter arranging the thermos and cups. She heard the door shut and knew it must be me.

“How are you holding up Libby?” Mrs. Dixon asked in her non-invasive way, that before today had me always opening up to her. How does she think I’m holding up? Her son has just breezed back in town after a decade of leaving my heart to break into a thousand pieces!

Of course Mr. & Mrs. Dixon would know that Tanner’s return would cause me to feel things I put on the back shelf a long time ago. They had witnessed my breakdown after Tanner decided he was not coming back and watched me pretended to move on with my marriage to Christopher. They still would joke that I was the best thing to happen to Tanner and not coming back home was his biggest mistake.

I placed a kiss on her cheek and responded, “As well as can be expected.”

She chuckled and we made our way into the living room where it would seem they would be meeting. Mr. Dixon rose from the sofa giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Libby thank you for coming this morning,” Mr. Dixon began. Mrs. Dixon took her place next to her husband on the sofa and stared adoringly at her son sitting across from her.

I took a seat in one of the worn armchairs but not before catching Tanner’s gaze and his small and insecure smile. “No problem Mr. Dixon whatever we need to do,” I responded.

“I am so happy to hear you say that,” Mr. Dixon began, “because we do think things need a little re-working now that Tanner has come home and wants to help with the ranch.”

This was it. Tanner was going to take over the ranch and Gage and I will have to move in with my parents. My heart was stuck in my throat and I was having trouble breathing when Tanner spoke.

“Libby I did not come back here to take the ranch from you. I just need a fresh start and I have let down my parents, and you, long enough,” Tanner ended with what seemed to be a genuine sigh of exhaustion.

I’m not sure how, but I felt for Tanner. In his youth, he had made a bad choice, as we all have done before. However, this particular bad choice happened to rip out my heart and leave me broken for many years. I sat quietly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Betsy and I are ready to retire,” Mr. Dixon began, “We have found the perfect retirement house near the beach and we already have one foot in the ocean.” Mr. Dixon hugged his wife who nodded her head in apparent agreement. “The last thing we have to do before hitting the road is set up how the ranch will be run in our absence.”

Mr. Dixon went on to explain that prior to Tanner’s homecoming I was being groomed to take over the ranch. Without knowing that Tanner still wanted to have a part in the ranch, the Dixons had whole-heartedly agreed that I was the best and only choice to run the ranch. He explained that a lot of time and energy on both parts had gone into that training.

I started to feel better about the situation until he began talking about how they had always wanted Tanner to continue the Dixon legacy. It was a family ranch so it always went without saying that Tanner was next in line. When he left, it was incredibly difficult for the Dixons as they tried to determine how a future might look for the ranch without family to inherit it. Now that Tanner was back they were struggling with how to handle the situation.

“Last night I walked out to the outdoor arena to check out the new fencing you put up Libby,” Mr. Dixon began. “Just as I was admiring your handiwork my phone beeped with an email alert from the bank about some paperwork you were overdue on,” Mr. Dixon continued.

“Shoot,” I cried, “I completely got sidetracked and forget.”

“No problem it was actually extremely helpful,” Mr. Dixon quickly responded.

By this time I was on the edge of my seat and wiping my damp palms on my jeans. Tanner was chewing his bottom lip and bouncing his left knee and if I could still read Tanner correctly then he was equally as nervous. He caught me peeking at him and I quickly turned towards the Dixons.

It seems that this burst of wisdom had prompted a late night discussion with Mrs. Dixon. After ironing out some details, they both agreed on this new approach to the ranch.

“We would like you to share responsibilities and run the ranch together,” Mr. Dixon stated as a fact not a question.

My head flew up and I stuttered, “Together?”

“Yes dear together,” Mrs. Dixon added her first words to this distressing and already lengthy meeting.

Tanner was sat up straighter biting his lower lip, showing he was anxious, although it could be a good or bad anxious. After he spoke there was no doubt it was bad anxious.

“You want us to share the ranch?” Tanner asked with doubt lacing his every word.

Mr. Dixon must have anticipated this reaction from both of us because when he continued his voice was fatherly and kind. He went on to explain that I had a vast knowledge of the hands on things at the ranch. He continued to see that since I had come on board the ranch has never looked better. It felt great listening to him honestly praise my work. It reminded me of the passion I have for running this ranch and how much losing it would mean.

After squeezing my knee he turned to Tanner and explained his hope for the business and financial side of Dixon ranch. There were several additional business opportunities that had been put on the back burner with the Dixon’s retirement and the ranch running at full capacity. One of these opportunities being the new feed blend I had created. Mr. Dixon had hopes that with Tanner’s background he could not just maintain the business of the ranch, but help it to grow.

The Dixon’s new vision had me running the day-to-day operations of the ranch and Tanner running behind the scenes. Literally they were proposing that we run the ranch “together.” Is this even possible? How do they expect me to work with him when they know how much he hurt me? Neither Tanner nor I said anything and for the first time, the Dixons looked uneasy.

I loved the Dixon family and they deserved a happy and stress-free retirement. Could I share the ranch with Tanner? Working side-by-side? I honestly did not know. I felt unsure of my residual feelings for him and the anger and hurt I still carried with me was clouding my vision. I was also dealing with this magnetic pull I felt every time our eyes met and my desperate desire to make his sparkle once again. That is not your job!

I struggled through the fog and remembered the most important thing. No matter how I felt this was not about Tanner, or me this was about the Dixon Ranch and continuing its proud legacy. I was not a Dixon by blood, but in my heart and mind I was a member of this family and keeping it whole was just as important to me.

I finally raised my head to meet the Dixon’s eyes, “If this is truly what you want then I will work with Tanner.”

Mr. Dixon began to smile as he turned to Tanner, who had his eyes trained on me. “Libby and I will figure out a way to run the ranch dad,” Tanner managed to get out.

Mrs. Dixon clapped her hands together and said with a motherly touch, “I just know this is the best thing for all of us.”

A red flag flew up in my head at her comment, but I could not see it through the intense feeling I was getting from Tanner and his laser gaze. His eyes had not looked away from me and I was starting to feel uncomfortable.

“Well, if that is it I have a lot of work to do,” I stated as I stood up to put some distance between the Dixons and me. I knew I was running away, but after a decision like that, no one could blame me. Since there was no way to add Tanner to the work cycle today I added, “and Tanner make sure you are on time tomorrow for work orders.”

With that and a smiling snicker from Mr. Dixon, I slid my boots back on and headed out to do some hard labor and pound Tanner Dixon out of my mind.

Tanner did not interfere with the ranch for the rest of the day and I only caught him watching me a few times from the back porch of the house. I could not avoid the group lunchtime but noticed that Tanner sat on the opposite end of the table and did not try to make things uncomfortable by addressing me. Of course he looked perfect in his worn jeans and boots, clean because he had not put in any hours on the ranch yet.

It was unnerving having him so close. I could feel the electricity we always had buzzing around us. I only hoped that we were the only ones able to recognize it. I was a different person when he left, and he obviously had changed while he was away. It was going to take time to get to know the grown-up versions of Libby and Tanner. I just hoped our grown-up versions could put the past aside and move towards a future that suited all of us.

Chapter Five

The next morning followed another sleepless night. I realized half way through the night that I could not keep bringing Gage to feed the horses in the morning. The chance that he might run into Tanner was too great and I was not ready for that meeting yet, not until I got to know grown-up Tanner a little better. Maybe I did not want Tanner to ever meet Gage. Perhaps Portland had changed Tanner in ways I did not want Gage to experience.

I expected Gage to be angry or hurt when I told him he was free from early morning feeding for the time being. Gage however had other plans as he crawled back into bed and set his alarm for later. By the time I was leaving the house he was snoring again.

It was hard to remember when bringing up a tween that just because they do not outwardly express their feelings it does not necessarily mean they are not feeling them inside. I made a mental note to have a one-on-one conversation with him that night to be sure he was getting the attention he needed from me. The early morning feeding had been our special alone time and I knew I would miss it and I hoped Gage would feel some of the absence as well.

When I got to the barn I saw the lights already on and Tanner’s truck parked outside. My temper ignited immediately wondering how he thought he could just come into her barn and walk around like his owned the place. I took a deep breath and remembered my vow to Mr. Dixon to make it work. The only way I was going to be able to work with Tanner is if I made sure he was doing everything the correct way, my way.

Right off the bat I noticed he was using the wrong feed for the wrong horses. Back when Tanner was in high school he helped his parents on the ranch and it would seem that he was picking up right where he had left off. Unfortunately, for him what had worked back then is not what works best now. My head began to ache thinking of how difficult it was going to be to train him on the new and improved ways of ranching. Obviously whatever ranch classes he took had been quickly replaced with finance knowledge. I prepped myself for a long day.

“Good morning Tanner,” I shouted as I entered the feeding area.

Tanner threw a bag of the wrong food into a trough and I wanted to scream at him, but my mouth did not seem to work as I watched his arms flex and the muscles of his back stretch. When Tanner had left he had really been just a boy, now however, he was very much a man. My body reacted to the sight of his well-worn jeans and tight t-shirt. It had been a long time since I had given myself the opportunity to appreciate a man’s body.

Yes, a delicious specimen of a man, but a man using the wrong feed. So snap out of it!

“Hey Libby,” Tanner said as he wiped his forehead with a rag. “I thought I would get an early start and help with the feeding,” he added with a smugness that I was about to smack right off of his face.

“I see that Tanner,” I began, “and while I appreciate your pro-activeness I have to tell you that you are using the wrong feed.”

Tanner’s head shook as he said, “No I’m not. It is winter and I am using the winter feed.” He pointed to the marking on the bag indicating it was winter-feed.

“You are correct that is winter feed,” I explained, “but we have begun rotating the regular winter feed with a new blend created to help the horses with their joints.”

I saw his back go up and witnessed an internal struggle behind his eyes. This was new for him too and I tried to be patient and helpful rather than condescending. I explained that I had noticed a trend of joint issues with the horses during the winter so I worked with the vet to make a blend of feed that would help. Tanner was looking at me like I was an alien and not the Libby he has known all his life. It was almost as if I had to undergo a transformation inside his mind. It was his turn to realize that grown-up Libby is not the same as the Libby he left.

I sighed accepting that this was the first of many things that Tanner and I were going to go toe-to-toe on. We had always had a tendency to take opposite sides on an issue just so we had an excuse to argue, and make-up.

I showed him where the correct feed was and the schedule he could check if he was ever unsure about what cycle they were on. He reluctantly took in the information and nodded his understanding. The next couple of weeks were a battle as young Tanner tried to prove me wrong on each and every task that had evolved or changed since he had been gone.

It seemed that everything had changed in the last decade and Tanner had a lot of catching up to do. From feeding to breeding, the world of ranching had been modernized. Even though most changes made our work easier, Tanner still thought the old way was a better way.

The pout he had used to get his way when we were in high school did not work on me anymore. However, the grown-up wiping his hand over his face and batting those extra long eyelashes was breaking me down piece by piece.

Most of the time I was able to keep my anger at bay, allowing my training as a mother to kick in and provide me with the patience I needed to avoid strangling Tanner. But there were times when all I could see was Tanner walking away from me after breaking the news he was leaving for Portland. He had left me without a reason for the hole he had ripped in my heart. These emotions made my fuse with Tanner short and I did a lot of deep breathing exercises.

During the same time, I could see Tanner struggling with his own internal demons. I could not pinpoint Tanner’s emotions and for right now our interaction consisted of ranch business only. It seemed that he was not ready to introduce me to all of grown-up Tanner just yet. Frankly that was just fine because I never quite knew which grown-up Libby you were going to get when I opened my mouth these days. Angry Libby, hurt Libby, overly peppy Libby, etc.

After the third week of my internal battle, I began to notice that Tanner was a quick study. The things I had taught him during the first week were clicking and I was able to confidently leave him alone to accomplish those tasks. I had to give him credit for finally accepting my authority on ranch matters and getting on board with the changes I had made.

We fell into a steady rhythm of teaching, learning and doing. I could feel the walls between us come down brick by brick. Our conversations remained at a professional level and neither one of us was brave enough to venture into the past; but there were times when we would both remember something and our eyes would meet before continuing on with the task at hand. That brief moment always caught us off guard and left me confused about where to go next.

For as strong as I was at work, I was equally an emotional mess at home. Gage was busy with friends and school, which left me with more time to daydream about Tanner and the man he had become. Tanner had not shared details of his life in Portland and I did not ask or prod him to reveal his reasons for coming home. More I was just in awe of the changes that had taken place over time. I had expected the intellectual growth after his time in college and the city, but I had forgotten to add in the fact that physically he would grow to be a powerful and sinful looking man.

I tried to deny my attraction, but it was no use so I continued to watch Tanner work with fascination and desire. If I was not mistaken, Tanner was having the same sort of thoughts. There were several times I felt someone watching me and looked up to find Tanner’s hungry gaze on me as I worked. Part of me would immediately think he had lost all of his rights to think of me that way when he chose to go to Portland. The other and louder part of me was excited that he was feeling the same way and hoping he was man enough to do something about it.

I wanted to believe that I wore tight tank tops and fitted jeans because they were comfortable, but who was I kidding. I was wearing those outfits for Tanner and that look that kept me warm long after his eyes left mine.

Chapter Six

One of the tasks I had been avoiding going over with Tanner was riding the fence line. It would require us to be alone for the entire day and sometimes it might even warrant an overnight trip if there were extensive damages that need to be repaired. Storm season was on its way though so I could not procrastinate on the task any longer. I just hoped that we could have a quick ride and be back before dark.

The thought of spending the night in the wilderness alone with Tanner was just too much to bear. I had acted nonchalant when reminding Tanner to pack an overnight bag but inside I was a ball of nerves. I had not been alone with any man in such a long time let alone a man who I was deeply attracted to but should not be. To my surprise as we were saddling up the horses he fumbled a bit when I mentioned the possibility of a camp out.

As we double-checked the gear I noticed for the first time how interested the other guys were when Tanner and I were together. They had obviously heard through the grapevine about our history and were watching and waiting to see how we would continue to react to each other.

The ride started out crisp and clear with only a few fences that needed mending. We stopped for lunch along the stream we used to play in as kids back when we did not have a care in the world. I had brought Gage out here a few times but he was quick to remind me that the experience was not the same when you were with your mom.

The times Tanner and I had spent at the stream were filled with fishing, swimming and as we got older kissing. I caught him more than once staring at the outcropping of rock that we used to hang out on. We would ride to the stream, strip down to our bathing suits (or underwear when necessary), dive in and bake in the sun for hours. It was also the perfect place to make-out with no chance of interruption. We were so young and so eager to learn about each other and the reactions our bodies were having.

I slipped further into the memory remembering how Tanner and I had taught each other to kiss. We had been sitting on the rock after a quick swim and the heat was unbearable. Tanner began kissing me gently at first but soon we were showing the hunger we had for each other. It had been the summer following our freshman year so we were still in the newlywed phase of our romantic involvement. Everything was trial and error for us and kissing was no different.

Tanner had pulled back, looked me straight in the eye and asked me what I needed him to do. Without the filters of adulthood I told him how I wanted to be kissed and he did the same for me. After that afternoon we never kissed the same again. What had once been a spark was now a raging inferno. It was one of the happiest memories I had of us. Both of us choosing the pleasure of the other over our own.

Now looking out at the stream I sighed and filed the memories away again. Neither of us brought it up but it was obvious that both of us were reliving those same moments.

As the afternoon wore on the wind changed and the temperature began to drop significantly. I shrugged on my sweater and saw Tanner add a flannel over his t-shirt. I could smell the impending rain as it prepared to come over the hills and head straight for us. The smell was sweet but there was an edge to it that alerted me to the danger it could bring. Rain was no problem because we could easily continue our work.

Unfortunately, you could already see in the distance that lightning was splitting through the clouds. What I did know is that we could not continue along the fences because the metal mesh would be a prime target for a lightning strike. I made the decision to stop at one of the old barns where hopefully we could ride out the storm and still have enough daylight to make it home.

Just as we found some lanterns to give the barn a candlelit glow, the sky opened up and sheets of rain began pounding the ground surrounding us. The thunder shook the barn and the lightning illuminated even the far corners of the barn. I still smelled the sweetness of the rain but also felt the dangerous undercurrent in my body. It was not lost on me that I was here during a lightning storm with Tanner who looked just as nervous as I felt. I finally just accepted that we were here for a reason and whatever was going to happen was necessary for our future whatever that may end up looking like.

We made sure the horses were secured in a few of the still functioning stalls and huddled together with the blankets we had brought in case of a camp out. With nothing left to do but wait out the storm we began to talk. At first it was just general chitchat about the ranch and his parent’s impending retirement, but it was not long before we both start tiptoeing into the past.

Mostly we talked about the good times we had as kids growing up on the ranch and all the crazy things we used to do that got us in trouble. We talked about the time our buddy Rusty tried to kiss me at the stream and I broke his nose. This led to us talking about our first kiss and how nervous we were up in the loft. It was a sweet and non-suggestive conversation.

Then it dawned on me that there might never be another time when I would have Tanner as a captive audience to explain the hurt and pain he caused me when he left my life so many years ago. I took a deep breath and decided to open up wounds I had thought were long scarred over. I avoided talking about my marriage to Christopher and did not bring Gage into the conversation except to acknowledge his existence. I was holding Gage close until I could see what Tanner’s true intentions were.

I was hell bent on making sure that Tanner knew exactly what his decision to move to the city did to me and more specifically to my heart. I felt I was at a point in my life that I was no longer angry that he actually moved to the city, because without him leaving I would not have had Gage. However, I was still angry about how he had made that decision and his complete disregard for my feelings at the time. As I was describing my decision to move on after countless attempts to re-connect with him, I saw the pain clearly in his eyes and he started to softly cry. No crying please.

Tanner quickly wiped his eyes and with a struggle lifted his gaze to mine. Kill me now with those eyes!

“Libby,” he began, “there are no words that can fully describe just how sorry I am that you ever had to feel that way.”

He went on to tell me that his choice to leave had nothing to do with me but rather his need to experience different parts of what life had to offer. Unfortunately his youth had blinded him from seeing what he was leaving behind. He loved the city and although he never forgot me, after a time he convinced himself that I was better off without him. He thought that he would just be dragging me down by being miserable at the ranch while wishing he was out experiencing life. Or he thought it would be cruel to drag me away to the city just to satisfy his curiosity.

His apology seemed heartfelt and I found it harder and harder to stay angry with him for leaving. I was beginning to feel confused, appreciating his confession while at the same time still feeling abandoned. It still remained that he had chosen to explore his desires rather than hold on to our relationship. I honestly did not know where our love fit into this picture or whether it ever even had a chance once Tanner left for college. At least it was now all out in the open where we could choose to deal with it if we wanted.

One night alone in a barn was not going to make or break how we felt about each other but it was hopefully the start we needed to get back on track towards some sort of relationship. I tried to concentrate on the fact that we had been young and we just had different ideas of what the other needed. Unfortunately that was making me feel that I was a fool for how much I loved him and continued to love him when he had already chosen another path.

Unwilling to make an emotionally filled declaration with both my head and my heart still spinning, I quickly noticed that the rain was now a slight drizzle and the thunder and lightning had moved on. Breaking the seriousness of the conversation I suggested we head back before we lost daylight. I knew I was leaving things on a complicated note, but there was no way I could go through that roller coaster of emotions right now. I was going to need some time to process everything Tanner had shared with me. He seemed reluctant to leave but Tanner began prepping the horses for the ride back while I made sure the rest of the barn was secure.

Just as I was locking the supply room I heard Tanner approach and felt his hand on my shoulder. He turned me gently and took my face into his hands. My body instantly remembered his touch and he began to stroke my face with his fingers. Oh my… it has been so long. Without a word his lips met mine in a kiss so gentle it felt like tickle yet it was also full of promise and dare I say love?

Tanner pulled his head back and whispered, “You have never left my heart Libby.”

All of my words stuck in my throat and I just stared into his eyes unable to formulate an intelligible response when my body had just been reminded why Tanner Dixon was the love of my life. It was fruitless to deny that I was born to be in his arms. The question was whether he was meant to be in mine.

Tanner held out the reins of my horse and that is the last memory I have of that ride because my mind replayed our conversation and of course that kiss over and over again trying out all the different ways that this scenario could end. Selfishly I chose to keep all of those scenarios positive and with Tanner and I riding off into the sunset. However, I was a realist and as soon as we parted for the night I filed the kiss away for what it was, a pleasant experience. I needed to protect my heart and this was the only way I knew how.

No matter how hard I try to understand and control the fate life has laid out for me, I always learn that I have no say in the matter. After the storm confession, apology and kiss, I felt the largest wall between us break down. We were working together much more smoothly and our conversations were not laced with an undercurrent of unresolved business. We were not speaking of an “us”, but we were not avoiding each other around every turn either. Progress?

Chapter Seven

One of the tasks I had been avoiding going over with Tanner was riding the fence line. It would require us to be alone for the entire day and sometimes it might even warrant an overnight trip if there were extensive damages that need to be repaired. Storm season was on its way though so I could not procrastinate on the task any longer. I just hoped that we could have a quick ride and be back before dark.

I had even begun to feel comfortable enough with Tanner’s knowledge of how the ranch worked to suggest he switch his focus to the financial side of things. You would have thought that I found a solution to world peace the way his face lit up and the extra pep he began having in his step. It was obvious that although Tanner loved working the ranch, he loved crunching numbers even more.

Of course he had been a student of the ranch and now I was to be a student of the finances. He was a patient teacher but it was obvious he had a wealth of knowledge that not only would I never learn, I never wanted to learn. He taught me the balance sheet, invoicing and budget projection. All of the more complicated procedures he thought would be better in written form for use in an emergency. I could not have agreed more.

Watching him work on spreadsheets and invoices it started to connect in my brain that this was what he had been learning in college that had got him so excited and pulled him away from the ranch, and from me. Seeing his eyes light up and sparkle I began to realize that whatever happened with Tanner while he was gone was what was making him the man he was today. And that man was one that I could easily find myself staying with forever.

One Saturday morning during January I heard a knock on my front door. Still dressed in my flannel pajamas I made my way to the door. To my surprise Tanner was on my doorstep holding two cups of steaming hot coffee. I do not know what I deserved to get this breakfast treat but thank you heavens above.

Tanner smiled, melting some of the icicles around my doorframe, “Libby I am here to kidnap you for the day so as attractive as those pajamas are I think you better get dressed.”

I knew that look of determination and decided it would be a useless battle to say no. Gage was with friends that weekend and the ranch was under control with the weekend hands so I did not have any responsibilities. I left Tanner in the living room and quickly showered. I decided after my shower that I deserved a little pampering and there was not a single thing wrong with wanting to feel like a desired woman. So I dressed in a long skirt, tall boots, fitted sweater, scarf and jacket.

When I walked out of the bedroom Tanner’s expression was one of unfettered male satisfaction.

“You look absolutely stunning,” Tanner said.

I felt myself blushing but I did not look away as I walked toward him saying, “I’m all yours Mr. Dixon.”

Even though they were simple words they held years of unrequited love. Tanner took a ragged breath showing he was as affected as I was by the possibilities that lie ahead. It took everything in my power but I put a head to his chest as I walked out the door. The electricity was amazing and I had not felt that sort of incredible tension since I had been with Tanner sixteen years ago. Looks like you still got it girl!

Tanner held his truck door open for me and helped me climb in, his hands around my waist. I closed my eyes at the warm sensation they left as he closed the door and crossed around the front of the truck and climbed in. My nerves were scrambled and I fumbled a bit with my seatbelt. After securing myself I risked a look at Tanner.

“Am I going to enjoy this kidnapping?” I asked when Tanner had begun to back out of the driveway.

In lieu of an answer Tanner just smirked and turned up the radio. He obviously remembers that I like surprises. I took that as my cue to enjoy the scenery and occasionally catch glimpses of his profile as we cruised along the highway. I held my hope of a romantic surprise silently because I did not want to do anything that might jinx the date. Err I mean kidnapping.

It became clear in a few hours that we were headed into the city. I had been to the city several times before but I just preferred the country. Something about the sheer size of it caused me anxiety. I craved the open air of the country to the crowded streets of the city.

Tanner must have noticed the change in my posture because he grabbed my hand pulling my fingers to his lips for a slight kiss.

“I want to show you where I have been Libby,” Tanner started, “to show you some of the reasons I loved being in the city.”

I caught his gaze and you could see he was visibly nervous about what my reaction would be. I squeezed his hand and said, “Ok Tanner show me what you’ve got.”

The relief rolled off him in waves and I made the decision right then and there to give him the day to let me into that part of his life. It was important enough for him to bring me here so the least I could do was give him a chance to prove me wrong about the city.

After searching for a parking space, one of the reasons I preferred the country, we went to an art museum with an entire wing dedicated to landscape photography. We had taken a few school trips to museums but I had not been in one as an adult. The difference was phenomenal and I quickly understood why Tanner had chosen this place.

I had not realized that Tanner loved photography and he had even taken a few courses during college to help him hone his hobby. He confessed that during some of the most stressful times at work he would take his camera for a few hours and just walk around the city snapping hundreds of shots as things presented themselves. I made him promise to show me some of his favorites when we got back to the ranch.

It was amazing to see Tanner with such passion for something, but his description of the stress at work also raised a red flag. He still had not disclosed his exact reason for leaving the city and every time I brought up work he was swift to change the subject. I pushed the questions down as we moved on to the next surprise visit, a theatre production of Wicked.

As children we had a slumber party every year when The Wizard of Oz played on TV. We ate popcorn and s’mores and tried to scare each other when the flying monkeys came on. I realized as I thought back that we actually continued that tradition up through high school. We just did more kissing during those years than watching of the movie.

It was incredibly sweet that he chose this particular show. There were a lot of plays in the city but he had made sure the one we saw was meaningful. It was just another thing Tanner did to remind me of the reasons I had fallen in love with him to begin with. Tanner had always been good at remembering the small stuff most people take for granted. It was a wonderful trait and I was glad he had not lost it.

It was a late afternoon showing but it was still a sold out show and the people watching was excellent. There was so much excitement in the air it would have been hard not to get caught up in it. I squeezed his hand as the music started and I do not think my smile could have grown any bigger. The musical was fantastic and the joy on Tanner’s face when I gushed over the performance was enough to make me want to buy tickets for the next show. He was trying to please me and so far it was definitely working.

Bit by bit I was beginning to allow myself to see how Tanner could love the city. There was so much to do here and just as many different kinds of people to interact with. It was like another world and if you belonged in this world then the ranch world would never be enough for you. Pieces of the puzzle that was Tanner were falling into place. He really did not want to be at home did he?

We walked through parks and stopped at a farmer’s market in the middle of all the corporate buildings for a piece of fruit to snack on. Then he took me to a bookstore that seemed to go on for miles. He even confided in me that he come here on Sundays after breakfast and read for hours about anything that did not have to do with finance. I wanted to ask why but something in the way his eyes clouded over told me to wait him out. Tanner would tell his tale when they time was right for him.

Even though we seemed to walk for hours and Tanner was a knowledgeable tour guide, we seem to sidestep any actual buildings Tanner had lived or worked in. He was showing me his social life and the reasons he had fallen in love with the city. Maybe those other things are why he had needed to start over. I tried to shake negativity from my thoughts and just enjoy that he was choosing to share anything with me.

Our final destination of the day was a cozy and quaint restaurant inside a refurbished house on the east side of the river. There were white tablecloths, candles and tuxedoed waiters. I was feeling intimidated until I felt Tanner’s hand close over mine as the host led us to our corner table. Why does his touch still have that calming and soothing affect on me?

The menu was mouthwatering with fresh seafood and pasta. There were soups, salads, fish I had never even heard of and vegetables prepared in every way imaginable. It was an overwhelming amount of choices and there were no prices listed. I don’t want Tanner to think I am getting the most expensive thing on the menu to spite him. I don’t even know what his financial situation is since he moved back.

I was struggling to decide what might be cheapest on the menu when Tanner, who must have seen my resistance, said, “Would you mind if I ordered for both of us?”

I am sure my exclamation of relief could be heard across the room but as long as I did not have to decide it was worth it. Tanner smiled and ordered what seemed like a ridiculous amount of food for two people but I trusted him and knew it would be delicious. He also ordered us each a glass of wine. I made a toast to kidnapping and we talked about everything we had done that day until our meals came. I made sure that Tanner knew how much I appreciated his thoughtfulness throughout the day without sounding mushy or overly sentimental. I was using a mom trait to keep things light but still important.

Then our food was delivered and I was like a fish out of water. I do not know where Tanner learned to eat like this but I could see why he had become so spoiled. We had a creamy potato and leek soup, a winter root vegetable salad, glazed salmon and a chocolate soufflé from heaven covered in angel dust (or powdered sugar). I loved good food but had only been exposed to home-style food that was good for a family and a bunch of ranch hands. As I licked my spoon of chocolate soufflé I decided I could definitely get used to eating like this.

The conversation flowed easily throughout dinner with Tanner explaining how he had learned about different types of food by entertaining clients and trying as many restaurants as he could. I shared the cooking wisdom I had picked up over the years by watching The Food Network, learning from his mom and trying to get a picky kid to eat healthy. A feat that is so much harder than anyone tells you. Tanner had relaxed since we had arrived in the city, almost as if he had left his skin here and was returning his body to its rightful place.

Tanner mentioned that he brought me to the city to show me his past life putting the stress on the past part. He was now ready to be part of the ranch, as long as he could visit the city once a year. I laughed at his deadpan face and took another bite of dessert. I continued to watch Tanner as I cleaned my spoon. His eyes had gone from playful to heated in seconds. I realized that I had been sighing while licking the spoon and I am sure I had a look of pure joy on my face. I was touched by his gaze in places long since dormant and I felt the blush creep up my face. While this should have embarrassed me, it actually made me feel powerful and sexy.

Tanner took my hand for the rest of the dessert and coffee and never took his eyes off my lips. You could measure the heat of our connection and anyone around us could almost certainly feel the charged atmosphere. Tanner had not kissed me since the day in the barn and I had been wondering if he regretted it. However the look in his eyes tonight said he was leaning towards the side of doing it again and soon. Cannot be soon enough.

We walked hand in hand back to the truck and he reached around me for the car door. Now or never Libby. I turned in his arms and raised my chin while moistening my bottom lip with my tongue. I heard his breath catch and watched his eyes spark with want. I rose up on my toes meeting him halfway before his mouth claimed mine. The kiss was sweet then needy as his arms pulled me close enough to feel his heartbeat. Our tongues met in hesitation but quickly remembered each other and we both fell deeper into the kiss. Home sweet home.

When we finally pulled apart both of us were short of breath and Tanner’s eyes were wild with the desire I remember him having for me long ago. He leaned forward and kissed me gently without a word and helped me into the truck. My legs were shaking and my lips felt swollen and unbelievable. This was what a kiss should do to you.

A kiss should turn your world upside down and leave you always wanting more. Tanner Dixon knew how to kiss me and he obviously remembered our kissing lessons at the stream because he never missed a beat. Giving and taking when necessary, allowing me to follow his kiss with contentment I had not felt in years. As he got into his side I was struggling to keep myself from crawling onto his lap and begging to be kissed again. I knew that we both needed time and as awesome as the day was, we still had a lot to learn about each other. The difficulty was convincing my body of this fact.

By the time we were in the car heading back to the ranch I was exhausted from the non-stop agenda of the day. The truth is I would always be a country girl at heart, but the fact that Tanner wanted to let me into his world was a big leap forward in repairing our broken relationship.

He had thought of everything on our kidnapping date today and I could not shake the feeling that we had crossed over the final barrier in our healing process. He obviously wanted to be more than friends, but I was still not one hundred percent sure he wanted to work towards a romantic relationship.

His city life sounded fast paced and hectic but full of interesting people and places. I could see some of the places he had pointed out to me held more meaning than others, but the pieces of his time away were slowly falling into place. My body had made up its mind about the grown-up Tanner, but my mind was still filling in the blanks. There was still so much missing from the picture, but I had to be honest with myself and recognize that my heart did not care. I had Tanner Dixon in my life again and I felt like the luckiest girl on the planet.

The city lights showed up in the rearview mirror and I happily tucked away the memories from today. I knew I was taking a risk allowing myself to dream of a future with Tanner but I wanted him and I would be doing myself a disservice to not at least try. The only thing left for me to do was be prepared to accept what he was going to give me. That and how I might have to decide if it was going to be enough.

I started to nod off and cuddled closer to Tanner for warmth and stability. Tanner had always been my rock throughout my younger years and leaning on him came as naturally as breathing. His arm came around my shoulders and pulled me to him. His chest was warm and I could feel his heart beating. I was tempted to slide my hand through the buttons of his shirt and touch his skin, but I thought better of it. Best to wait until the time was right, if there was even going to be a time.

I barely remember smiling up at Tanner with heavy eyelids thinking about how full my heart felt at that moment. It was as if the lightning had opened up a portion of my heart that had been shielded from the world since Tanner left and right now that hole was filled with love and contentment.

With the last of my consciousness I whispered, “I love you Tanner,” then slipped off to sleep before he even had a chance to reply.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

Please visit Amaz0n to view the next books in this series.

Sex With The Lawyer

by

Kelly Young

Copyright © 2014 by Kelly Young

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Sex With The Lawyer

All rights reserved.

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording and faxing, or by any information storage and retrieval system by anyone but the purchaser for their own personal use.

This Book may not be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Kelly Young, except in the case of a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages for the sake of a review written for inclusions in a magazine, newspaper, or journal—and these cases require written approval from Kelly Young prior to publication. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Chapter One

I thought my life was going exactly as planned. I believed that I had my proverbial shit together. I was in control, I was happy and content. It only takes an instant to realize how wrong you are about…well, everything.

“Hey, Brooke,” the smooth, deep voice behind me crooned. “It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

My fingers hovering over the keyboard, I tossed my head over my shoulder and quirked an eyebrow. “I really can’t say the same,” I muttered.

His response was a grin; a slimy, insincere stretch of his lips that he obviously thought was attractive. He was wrong.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, regretting the question as soon as it was out of my mouth, because it would inevitably extend his hovering in the doorway of my office.

“I’m here to meet with your boss,” he stated, still with the oleaginous smirk. He stepped forward in his highly polished Italian shoes, and ran a hand down the dark gray vest of his three-piece suit. “I think he wants to talk about a plea bargain on the Jewkes case.”

I couldn’t help the unladylike snort that erupted as I turned back to my computer screen. “I don’t think so,” I informed him. “You haven’t got anything on Jewkes and you know it. We can’t wait to take this thing to trial.”

“Hmm,” he chuckled, slithering toward my desk before perching himself on the corner. “You were very impressive in court today, by the way.”

Remaining silent, I ignored his hollow flattery.

Randy Gregoire had been assistant DA for a little over a year, and was one of the youngest ADA’s in the country. A high-flying Yale graduate, he had his sights set on the top. He was driven. In that regard, he and I were extremely similar. That, however; was where our common ground had begun and ended. Randy by name and very randy by nature, he’d made attempts to hit on me each time we’d ever met. And it was no secret that he had a voracious sexual appetite; he had bedded (and tossed aside), every willing female law intern in the city. If those poor girls had believed his promises of giving them a leg-up, they were not savvy enough to be lawyers.

“It’s late on a Friday night to still be working, isn’t it?” he asked, reaching out and folding his smooth fingers around my wrist to pull my hand away from the keyboard.

Instantly, snatching free from him, my eyes darted up to meet his. “You’re still working too,” I pointed out.

“Yeah,” he nodded, drawing his hand back and sweeping the fingers through his short, blonde hair. “But I’ll be finished up soon, and then maybe you and I could grab a drink?”

“I’m busy,” I replied stiffly.

“You’re always busy, Brooke,” he countered with a chuckle. “But sometimes you’ve got to let that hair down,” he added, pitching his voice a little lower.

“How many different ways can I say ‘no’?” I sighed, giving up on my work and using both hands to push my chair away from the desk. I was only propelled a few inches back, but it was enough to put some distance between us.

One hand adjusting the Windsor knot at his neck, the other smoothed over the perfectly pressed pants covering his thigh. “You’re so uptight, Brooke,” he chuckled. “How long has it been since you had sex?”

I rolled my eyes at his tiresome crudity. In part, I knew, it was intended to shock me. I’m sure he hoped for a feminine gasp at his blunt question. I certainly wasn’t going to oblige. “That’s nobody’s damn business but my own,” I retorted.

It had been several months since I’d had sex. I had precious time to meet people, I certainly didn’t want a relationship with all the mess that would involve, and one-night stands had never really been my thing. But that wasn’t the point. Sex wasn’t a big deal, it wasn’t the be all and end all that so many people, Randy included, seemed to believe.

“You have needs like any other woman,” he continued, oblivious it seemed to the expression of disdain his words were met with. “I could help you out,” he added, his greasy grin growing wide and teeth flashing like a shark that has smelled blood in the water. “I could have you screaming in ecstasy.”

“I don’t need a man to have an orgasm,” I responded matter-of-factly, folding my arms beneath my bosom. “In fact, most of the time, they just get in the way.”

My barb failed to wipe the smirk off his face. Instead, his cold, blue eyes flicked up and down the length of my body. Gradually, he took in the black stockings that covered my legs, the pencil skirt that clung to my thighs, and the white silk blouse that hugged my breasts. “Oh, Brooke,” he mumbled. “I can do things your vibrator only dreamed of.”

“I’m sure,” I snapped, forcing myself from the chair and striding to the still open door. “For instance, my vibrator doesn’t annoy the hell out of me. Now, I believe you have an appointment,” I sighed, gesturing to the doorway, “and I have work to do.”

For a moment, he looked like he might refuse to leave, but after inhaling sharply, he pushed himself to his feet. “You keep playing hard to get,” he quietly uttered as he walked toward me. “It just makes me all the more hot for you. And tonight, while I’m banging some little slut, I’ll be thinking about you touching yourself.”

“You’re a pig,” I spat, shaking my head.

No more than a foot from me, he stopped. “I always get what I want, Brooke,” he breathed.

The heavy scent of cologne, as though he’d bathed in the stuff, stung my nostrils. “Just get out,” I demanded.

With a self-assured chuckle, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and took the two steps to the door. Without looking back, he strutted down the corridor to Mr. Weingarten’s office.

Exhaling through gritted teeth, I grasped the edge of the door and slammed it shut. “For God’s sake,” I whispered, turning back to my desk. If that asshole was the last man on Earth, I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Randy Gregoire, and men like him, was one of the reasons I refrained from even casual relationships: it tainted you. Men get away with it and are seen as studs. Women, on the other hand, are branded ‘sluts’ and are no longer taken seriously.

No, as much as we might like to believe we have equality, the truth is we don’t. In what is still a very male-dominated business, I not only had to work that much harder, but also had to conduct myself in a way that made me seem like a ruthless bitch on one hand, and a chaste virgin on the other. Neither of those stereotypes was a true depiction of the real me, but I’d been playing the roles for so long, that I was starting to lose sight of what was true and what wasn’t.

With a weary huff, I tossed my eyes to the clock as I slumped back in my chair and tugged myself closer to the desk. It was almost eight; everybody else, with the exception of Mr. Weingarten, had left long before. They had families and social lives. I had…work. But that was alright, because work was all I needed. It was all I wanted. Come hell or high water, I would make partner before thirty-five; even if that meant making sacrifices, I knew they were worth it.

Casting my gaze back to the bright screen before me, I lifted my fingers to the keyboard. But before I managed to type a word, the harsh buzz of the phone interrupted me. Puffing my cheeks out with a sigh, I grabbed for the handset and brought it to my ear. “Weingarten and Ressler, Brooke Addison speaking,” I said.

“Um, Brooke?” A hesitant, slightly distorted male voice drifted down the line. “I..err…I’m Shawn Lamont, Helena’s brother.”

“Oh, right, of course,” I nodded, recalling that I’d met Shawn once, maybe twice, before. My brow, however, was tightly lined in confusion. “What can I do for you Shawn?”

“Um, actually,” he croaked, clearly struggling. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”

Chapter Two

Helena Lamont was one of those people that managed to light a room by walking into it. She was probably the only genuinely good soul I’d ever met, and law seemed like entirely the wrong discipline for her. In fact, when we met in law school, I was convinced she wouldn’t make it beyond the first week. That’s another thing I was wrong about. Not only did she make it through, but she breezed by, passing the bar with flying colors.

Although Helena and I were polar opposites on paper, we had one of those instant bonds that made me wonder about the possibility of past lives. Within five minutes of meeting, it was as if we’d known each other forever. There weren’t many things we held in common; she liked to party, got through boyfriends like they were socks, and was notorious for completing assignments the night before they were due. However, what we did share was a sense of humor and an affection for one another that went much deeper than any friendship I had before or since.

After school, we’d gone our separate ways, I’d stayed in New York and she’d taken a job on the west coast. We remained close, though, talking at least twice a week on the phone and traveling to see each other every few months.

Unlike me, she had no great ambition to run with the ‘big boys’. Her dreams were simpler: she genuinely wanted to help people, and she wanted to ensure she had enough time to enjoy life. And enjoy life she certainly did. While earning relatively little at a community legal clinic in Santa Cruz, she lived in a tiny studio apartment just a block from the beach.

“I know it’s small,” she’d told me the first time I’d visited her in her new home.

“Small?” I’d chuckled. “Hel, you’ve barely got room for a bed in here.”

“Yeah,” she’d smiled, nodding toward the window. “But check out that view. Every morning, I get to swim in that ocean. Really starts the day off right, you know?”

I didn’t know. The cramped conditions were something I could not overlook, no matter what other perks the property offered.

As far as I know, she did spend the next two years swimming every morning. She also spent her weekends surfing or playing volleyball. And, just as it had been in law school, her dating pool was as broad as it was deep. She really lived. She loved life. It wasn’t fair that it should all be ripped from her far too soon.

Staring at the mahogany coffin, surrounded by more flowers than I’d ever seen, it all seemed so unjust that my mind could not contend with it. A drunk driver; an intersection; and Helena’s small car. In just a fraction of a second, it was all over.

Motionless, and unblinking I pictured Helena with the broad, genuine smile that was always infectious. I saw her sparkling, bright blue eyes, so full of passion and vibrancy. I saw the long blonde hair that always looked perfect, even when she’d just gotten out of bed. It did not seem possible that I would never see those things again.

Slowly, lifting my hand, I placed my palm on the solid wood. I wasn’t aware of the imperceptible, disbelieving shake of my head or the silent tears that had begun to skate across my cheeks.

Suddenly warm fingers cupped my shoulder and, with a start, I lifted me head.

“Sorry,” the man softly said, “I didn’t mean to make you jump.”

I found Shawn’s eyes, they were the exact color and shade as his older sister’s, but with a heart wrenching sadness within them. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in several days, dark circles beneath his lids spoke of sleepless nights since the day he called my office.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” he continued quietly. “I know, it would have meant a lot to Helena.”

My gaze moving from his and back to the coffin, I exhaled shakily. “Nothing would have kept me away,” I replied, wiping at the salty droplets on my face with the heel of my hand. “Um, I’ve been meaning to ask, are you doing anything about the driver?” I asked, sniffing.

“What do you mean?” he replied, shaking his head.

“A civil suit,” I explained.

Shawn’s focus fell to the floor and his hand slipped from my shoulder. “I don’t think that’s…” he murmured weakly.

“He’s responsible for Helena’s death,” I said definitively.

“Is suing him gonna bring her back?” Shawn responded calmly.

“No,” I breathed. “But that’s not the point, you have a case-”

Gently Helena’s bother lifted his face, quieting me with a subtle shake of his head. “Brooke, I know you mean well, but I don’t think that’s something my parents or I want to put ourselves through. Besides, it’s not what Helena would have wanted.”

I opened my mouth to disagree with him, but quickly closed it again. I could almost hear her voice. ‘It’s not worth it. It will only bring more misery. Money won’t make anything better.’

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few things I need to do,” he added, stepping back. “Thanks again for coming, Brooke.” Unlike the first time he’d said it, this time it was offered with almost forced politeness.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” I quickly uttered. “I just…None of this seems fair.”

Sticking his hands in his black suit pants, Shawn accepted my apology with a slight nod. “I know,” he sighed. “And I know that you think litigation will help right the wrong, but the truth is it won’t help Helena.” With that, he turned away from me and strode from the room.

I stayed for some time longer, exactly how long I couldn’t possibly say. I tried to seek comfort from being close to Helena, but that feeling that had always been there wasn’t present. She wasn’t present. Her body may have lain in the carefully carved, polished wooden box, but the important things; the things that made her her, those were gone.

In the silence of the funeral home, feeling more alone than I ever had, Shawn’s words rolled around and around in my mind. At first, I fought them, determined that he was wrong. A legal suit may not bring Helena back, but it would be some kind of justice. It would acknowledge that there was value in the life that the stupid, selfish bastard had taken.

Yet, as the moments passed, my vehement conviction failed me. A civil suit, and even a criminal prosecution for that matter, could never right an immutable wrong. Nothing. Nothing would ever help Helena’s parents deal with the loss of their daughter. Nothing would ease the grief Shawn felt. Nothing would make me feel any better, either.

And, if that was true, what the hell was I wasting my life doing?

I was working to make rich men richer. I was working every waking hour to achieve a meaningless position, so I could do what? Prove that I was as good as the men? Become one of the rich people getting perpetually richer? Did any of that have any real meaning? My career had no meaning in and of itself. On paper, I might have been more successful than Helena had been, but she had helped many more people; arguably worthier people. Along with that, she’d managed to lead a full life. She wasn’t chained to her desk, she knew what it was to have fun; how to stop and smell the roses.

Perhaps, I thought, my eyes lifting from their blank stare, it was time I learned how to do some rose-smelling of my own.

Chapter Three

Mr. Weingarten tugged his reading glasses from his face and dropped them on the table in front of him. “You want what?” he asked.

“I want to take a leave of absence,” I repeated.

“I…I…” he stammered, his face creasing quizzically as if I’d just told him I’d been abducted by aliens. “But you…” he muttered, his thumb hooking into one strap of his red suspenders. “Listen,” he sighed slowly, seeming to find a cohesive train of thought upon which to jump. “I know that your friend dying has been tough on you, but do you really want to throw everything away?”

“Throw what away?” I huffed, crossing one leg over the other as I adjusted the jacket of my gray suit. “I’m not talking about leaving permanently; I just want to take some time off.”

“How long?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at the thinning hair at his temple.

Exhaling thoughtfully, I shook my head. “I don’t know; a month, maybe two,” I shrugged.

“You realize a lot can happen here in that time,” he stated. “Maybe Harris will get partner.”

Catching my tongue between my teeth, I fought the urge to provide a knee-jerk reaction to his thinly veiled threat. Surely, it was an idle one. After the years I’d spent slogging away for the firm, he wouldn’t really offer the partnership to Harris: a man who had only been working with us for seven months and got the job simply because he was Ressler’s son-in-law. Quickly, however, I realized my anger was fading.

“Brooke?” Mr. Weingarten said. “You’ve done some amazing work for us, won some tough cases and shown how dedicated you are, we appreciate that.”

“But?” I muttered, sensing the compliment was far from all he had to say.

Sitting forward, he placed elbows on the desk and pressed his hands together. “I know how much you want to become a partner,” he continued. “And, let me tell you, you’re close. But if you take a career break now, it’s going to set you back at least a year.”

“I don’t care,” I sighed, finding the words flowing from my mouth much more easily than I would have expected. And I meant them. “Ever since my freshman year of college, I’ve been focused on one thing,” I told him casually. “Life is far too short for that.”

“Why don’t you take a week’s vacation?” he offered as it became increasingly apparent that Mr. Weingarten was reluctant to comply with my request.

“Thank you,” I nodded courteously. “But I need longer than that. There are things I want to do; things I need to do.” Silently, I added, ‘to honor Helena’.

With a weary huff that blew out his cheeks, Weingarten let his hands flop listlessly and loudly onto his desk. “Well, if that’s really what you want,” he muttered.

“Thank you,” I repeated more sincerely than the first time. Pushing myself from the seat opposite him, I brushed at the legs of my pantsuit. “I’ll finish the week,” I told him.

“What about the Jewkes trial?” he asked, his head snapping up.

“Everything’s ready,” I offered with a small smile. “The defense is all set, it just needs someone to deliver it. A well-trained parakeet could manage, so Harris should be fine.”

A wry smile tweaked his mouth and one eyebrow crept upward.

“I’ll bring you the files this afternoon,” I continued, nodding before turning toward the door.

Just as my fingers grasped the brass handle, Weingarten’s voice halted my movement.

“Give this some more thought Brooke, I don’t want to see you making a mistake.”

Twisting my head over my shoulder, I studied his face, wondering for a moment whether his concern was genuinely for me, or just for his business. “I don’t need to think about it,” I eventually said. “I know I’m not making a mistake.”

Ironically, every night over the following days I was stuck in my office later than usual, tying up the loose ends of the cases I was working to ensure they were complete enough, that if a moron like Harris took over where I left off, he couldn’t do too much damage.

For the rest of that week, neither Weingarten or Ressler mentioned the subject of my career hiatus. In fact, both men seemed intent on avoiding me. I had a feeling Ressler in particular was angry about my decision, and, although I knew that spelled the end of my partnership hopes (at least in the near future), I couldn’t find it within myself to be distressed by that fact. Instead, I was invigorated with a new spirit. There were more important things than a job title and a big fat bonus. I wanted to live, even if just for a month or two, as Helena had lived. I wanted to embrace opportunity, experience new things and throw myself into life with the joy and passion she’d had. It was my tribute to her. Perhaps, upon reflection, it was a naïve way of trying to feel closer to her. But, whatever it was, I was determined to do it.

That Friday evening, I found myself staring at the clock, watching the second hand and wondering how I would put all of my big plans into action. I had secured my sabbatical. Work was done, I could have got up that instant and begun living. But how does someone start living?

“You know what we should do?” Helena’s voice reverberated in my head as I recalled a night we’d spent drinking wine on her sofa. “We should travel.”

“Now?” I’d asked, laughing.

“No,” she’d responded. “We should take a long vacation, see some of the beautiful places in the world.”

The memory sparked something within me. Shaking myself from my zombie-like state, I lunged for my computer’s mouse, and jerked it to enliven the darkened screen. Hurriedly, I searched for available flights for the next day. Scanning the list of destinations, one leaped out at me: Paris. With a few more taps of the keyboard, I discovered there were seats available. It seemed like a sign. Without hesitation or thought, I bought a ticket and leaned back in my seat with a smile. Life was about to start.

“Am I really going to do this?” I whispered, grinning.

“Do what, Brooke?”

Face jolting from my computer screen, I swiveled to find Randy Gregoire’s figure in the doorway.

“Nothing to concern you,” I sighed, aware that even his presence wasn’t quite enough to put a dampener on my excitement. Sitting up, I turned the computer off, before reaching to my bottom desk drawer and yanking it open.

“You know,” he crooned, “I heard a filthy lie about you today.”

“Did you?” I muttered disinterestedly, not looking around as I picked my laptop bag from the drawer and got to my feet.

“Someone told me that you’re taking a sabbatical,” he continued, the smirk evident in his voice.

“Hmm,” I huffed, slinging the bag onto my shoulder and kicking the drawer closed with my black, three-inch pumps. “Well, that’s none of your concern, either,” I stated smartly. Pushing my chair under my desk, I gave the room a brief scan, ensuring I’d forgotten nothing, before striding to the door.

Randy did not move. “Why don’t you let me take you to dinner?” he asked, leaning against the doorjamb and crossing one foot over the other.

“I assume you came here with some purpose beyond irritating me,” I replied calmly, stilling my feet just a pace from the door.

“C’mon, Brooke,” he chuckled. “You’ve gotta give in to this sexual tension sooner or later.”

Both eyebrows snapping up, I cocked my head to the right. “Sexual tension?” I muttered.

“Sure,” he nodded. “All this sarcasm and scorn you lay on to mask how you feel. I know you want me, don’t pretend you don’t.”

“I think you’re confusing antipathy for attraction,” I informed him tartly. “Easily done, I’m sure.” As it became clear that he still had no intention of budging, I reached out to push him away from my path.

His hand quickly darted from his pocket, and his fingers clamped around my wrist. “What’s your problem, Brooke? I’m trying to be nice.”

“No,” I stated, twisting my arm free of him, “you’re trying to use me for sex.”

“Same thing,” he offered, with a shrug of one shoulder.

“Just get out of the way before I call the police, Randy,” I demanded through gritted teeth. Lifting both hands, I shoved at his chest, forcing him back a pace. Able to get through the small gap I’d made in the doorway, I quickly crossed the threshold and strode down the hallway.

Thankfully, he didn’t attempt to follow me, but his voice drifted down the corridor. “You know, it’s gonna happen one day Brooke, you’re going to be begging me to take you.”

Not dignifying him with a response, I kept walking, until I had rounded the corner and reached the elevators. “Asshole,” I mumbled, as the doors swished open and my route from the building was finally secured. Breathing deeply, I tried to force all thoughts of Randy from my mind. After all, I reminded myself, tomorrow was a whole new day.

Tomorrow, I’d be in Paris.

Chapter Four

I didn’t manage to get much sleep the night before the flight. My plans being so last-minute, I had a lot of packing to do, not to mention my passport to find, which, alone, took three hours. Eventually, however, with my hastily packed suitcase and a carry-on bag of essentials, I caught an early cab to Newark.

Although I’d only bought a seat in the coach cabin, when I got to check-in, I was upgraded; apparently there were some frequent-flier miles I’d clocked up earlier in the year, when I was working on a case that took me to Oregon to interview an expert witness. I’d ended up making several trips to see the guy, and in the end, he didn’t testify on our behalf. Back then, I’d been pissed about the waste of time. But as I was handed my business-class ticket, I was very grateful. Not only did it mean I’d have a quieter, more comfortable journey, but it offered the glimmering possibility of catching up on some of my missed sleep.

When I reached my seat, I found myself by the window, with an empty spot to my left. With a contented sigh, I tucked my carry-on into the overhead compartment and ran both hands through the loose dark waves that curtained my face. Holding my hair in a ponytail, I slumped into the spacious leather seat. I quickly melted into it, finding my exhausted eyes closing without any need to compel them.

However, they weren’t closed long enough to allow sleep to come to me. I felt a rush of air sweeping over me and heard the soft thump as a body sat down next to me. Eyes opening as reflexively as they closed, my face turned toward the sound of the moving air.

“Sorry,” the body who’d disturbed the air said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” His voice was as rich and deep as his chestnut eyes. The tone also seemed to suit the strong jaw and neatly styled hair that was slicked off his forehead with a little gel. I guessed he was in his late thirties or early forties, small laughter lines around his eyes the only thing that suggested he was a day over twenty-five.

I found my eyes moving over the smooth skin of his face and becoming transfixed by a tiny mole on his upper lip. The speck moved as he began to smile.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“No,” I blurted, blinking and shaking myself from my thoughts. “I mean, yes,” I corrected. “I’m fine, and you didn’t wake me.”

“Oh, well good,” he nodded.

My lips parted in preparation to speak again, but any attempt I was about to make was halted by the appearance of a very attractive, very tall flight attendant, who placed her well-manicured hand on the man’s seat and leaned down toward him, flashing him a copious view of her cleavage.

“Hi, Lance,” she smiled with a sparkling set of blindingly white teeth. “I thought you were sitting in first class.”

“Oh, err,” he mumbled. “Well, I was, but I..um…I moved for an elderly lady.”

“That’s so sweet of you,” the flight attendant said, her grin growing broader. “If you need anything, just give me a shout.”

“Thanks, Cat,” he replied, offering her an easy smile in reply.

I waited for the woman to right herself and walk a few seats ahead before turning to give him a skeptical lift of one eyebrow. “You moved for an old lady?”

“Yeah,” he said, his eyes shifting slightly from left to right. “They have those seats that turn into beds up there,” he said, nodding in the direction of the first class section of the plane. “Thought she’d be more comfortable.”

I hummed my understanding of his story, but I still wasn’t buying it. The man was one of the worst liars I’d ever come across, his hands moved restlessly over the front of his black pants and his gaze didn’t remain still for a second.

“What?” he chuckled self-deprecatingly, noting the doubt in my tone.

“I don’t believe you,” I told him before quickly listing his many tells.

His response was to laugh and hold his palms up in a ‘you got me’ gesture. “What are you, an attorney or something?”

A corner of my mouth rose.

“You are an attorney,” he stated, nodding. “Damn,” he muttered to himself, dipping his face and shaking his head. “I’m sorry,” he added, lifting his face and managing to meet my eyes with the same sincerity he had the first time he spoke to me. “Okay, I know this is going to sound creepy, but I asked to be moved so I could sit next to you.”

Taken aback by his sudden, very frank explanation, I found only one question on my mind and my lips. “Why?”

“Well…I don’t want this to sound shallow, but I thought think you are one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and I wanted to get to know you.”

“Oh,” I breathed, unable to find a complete word. He was attracted to me? Running on only an hour’s sleep, and wearing a comfortable pair of jeans and a sweater, that seemed unlikely. I wanted to ask if he was sure, but even in my own brain that sounded like a ridiculous question.

My long silence started to make him uncomfortable. “If you want me to move, I will,” he offered.

“No,” I quickly replied. A little too quickly. “Um, if you want to stay, I don’t mind.”

“Really? You sure; it’s a long flight?” he warned, with a warm smile. “And, maybe you wanted to sleep anyway.”

“No,” I responded with a brief shake of my head. “It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to.”

His face brightened as he lifted his right hand. “I’m Lance,” he offered.

“So I heard,” I nodded, wrapping my fingers around his large, strong ones. “Brooke,” I smiled.

“It’s nice to meet you, Brooke,” he said, squeezing my hand gently before releasing it. “What’s taking you to Paris, business or pleasure?”

“Um,” I hesitated, not knowing exactly how to answer. The trip certainly wasn’t business in the strictest sense, but it was a mission; a calling. However, that ‘calling’ was to have fun. “Pleasure,” I confirmed, unconsciously sweeping a few strands of hair behind my ear. “How about you?”

“Business, unfortunately,” he replied. “But, hopefully, I’ll still have some time to see the sights.”

“Oh?”

“I’m attending a conference,” he explained, twisting his upper body toward me.

Unconsciously, my own body moved to mirror him. “I see,” I nodded. “And, um, what is it you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Only seems fair,” he grinned. “After all, I know what you do. I’m a pilot.”

Eyes opening a fraction wider, I stared at him for a moment. “You’re a pilot?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he nodded, reaching for the zipper on his high-collared jacket. Tugging the fastener down a few inches, he revealed the white dress shirt with a set of wings embroidered on the left breast pocket.

“Makes sense,” I nodded.

“What do you mean?”

“The fact that the flight attendants know you, and you were able to get your seat switched,” I said, gesturing with a nod of my head to the attractive blonde who’d been leaning over him.

Lance was an indisputably magnetic man; tall, broad shouldered, and exuding just the right amount of confidence without being arrogant. And he was more than just easy on the eyes, he was easy to talk to. Although it had been a long time since I’d casually chatted with a stranger, nothing about our conversation seemed awkward or unnatural. And the more he talked, his voice as delicious and smooth as warm syrup, the more I realized I was developing a rather serious attraction to him.

After almost three hours of sitting in his company, I found my gaze unintentionally flitting to his lips, and my thoughts drifting to fantasies of what he might look like with his shirt off.

“Brooke?” he said, breaking my musings.

“Hmm?” I asked, forcing my eyes back to his.

A question flashed across his face, but he didn’t give it voice. “I said, how come you’re going to Paris alone?” he chuckled.

“Oh,” I breathed. “It’s…um…a long story.”

“We’ve got the time,” he suggested with a quirk of one shoulder.

Inhaling, I felt my face fall as I began to tell him what had prompted my sudden desire to experience more than my tunnel-visioned, career-driven existence.

“Sorry,” he whispered, consolingly. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he added sincerely.

“It’s alright,” I quietly offered, shaking my head. “It’s not your fault.”

“So, you’ve vowed to start living for something other than work?” he asked, clearly trying to draw me away from sorrowful thoughts of Helena. “That’s great.”

“Yeah,” I nodded a little reluctantly, “I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Well, it’s just a little scary; throwing caution to the wind.”

“Hmm,” he hummed, his lower lip jutting out fractionally. He was silent for a few seconds, and then the thoughtful expression faded. His mind, it seemed, had settled on something. “In the spirit of throwing caution to the wind,” he began quietly, tipping his head a little closer to mine. “Can I tell you that I’ve been thinking about doing something for the past three hours?”

“What’s that?” I wondered aloud.

His intense, brown eyes moved from mine to my mouth. Without another word, his face slowly drifted nearer. His movement, so gradual, gave me plenty of warning; plenty of time to pull back or tell him to stop. But I did neither. Instead, my tongue quickly leaped over my lips, moistening them.

Just a breath from me, his eyelids dropped closed, and his head tilted so our noses did not collide. After what felt like an incredibly long moment, during which I felt my heart rate triple, his soft, inquiring lips merged smoothly with mine.

The second we came together, I experienced a spark; something that had long been dwelling dormant erupted, sending a rampage of warmth to my cheeks. Pulse thrumming in every cell, I felt my fingers begin to tremble as I lifted them to his jacket and clung on for dear life.

My reaction was, I know now, disproportionate to what Lance was doing. It wasn’t a frenzied, passionate kiss. It was calm, easy and almost experimental. However, it stoked a fire in my loins that I’d not felt burning for a very long time.

After sampling my lips with his, he eventually opened his mouth slightly. My tongue responded rapidly and reflexively, forcing its way between his parted lips and racing over the warm, sweetness that I found within. His tongue entwining with mine, I found a hint of coffee and chocolate on his taste buds. As their rich flavor struck me, I moaned longingly. But the sound wasn’t a desire for coffee or for chocolate, it was a desire for him. It was a desire for much more than just his lips and tongue. I needed to feel his hands on me.

Restlessly, I shifted in my seat, feeling the flood of warmth between my legs. Seeming to suddenly come to my senses, my eyes snapped open and I pulled back from him. “God,” I muttered, inhaling hasty, shallow breaths.

“Wh- What’s wrong?” Lance asked, shaking his head in confusion.

Staring at the mild disorientation in his eyes, I had to fight the urge to simple tug him back to me. To avoid the temptation, I released my hold on him and slowly pulled my hands back into my lap. “I…um…” I quietly uttered. “This is crazy.”

“It’s throwing caution to the wind,” he agreed, smiling.

“But, we don’t really know each other,” I whispered.

“We’re only kissing,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” I acknowledged with a roll of my eyes, “but-”

“But?” he urged, concerned by the sudden way I’d cut myself off.

“I…” I tentatively began. For several seconds, I silently debated how frank I should be with him. After all, I didn’t want him to gain the wrong impression. But, then again, what did it matter what impression he had of me. After we got to Paris, there was a good chance I’d never see him again. “Um,” I mumbled. “Well it’s just that, things were getting a little intense. And I have a feeling that if we were somewhere less public, then we…err…”

Lifting his large right hand, he curled a gentle index finger around my chin and coaxed my face to his.

“What are you saying, Brooke?” he calmly asked.

“I…” I shakily replied, feeling my limbs melt under the heat of his gaze. “I…I want you,” I whispered.

Chapter Five

Almost before the words were out of my mouth, Lance was getting to his feet. Dumbstruck, I looked on, wondering if I’d offended him. Or perhaps he was put off by a woman being so forward. Although, I couldn’t imagine many men being left cold by an overt come-on.

He walked back down the aisle before lightly tugging the elbow of the blonde flight attendant, Cat. Twisting and craning my neck so I could see over the top of the seats, I watched them share a brief few words before she nodded and smiled agreeably. I could lip-read the word ‘thanks’ from him, and then he smartly spun on the ball of his foot.

With long strides he came back up the aisle, and as he reached his seat he leaned forward. “Come with me,” he said, offering me his warm hand and an even warmer smile.

I opened my mouth to speak, but a series of unintelligible mumblings were all that emerged.

“Come on,” he chuckled. “Let’s go somewhere a little less public.”

Unsure what he meant, I found myself nevertheless taking his hand and allowing my body to be pulled from the seat. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I was aware that I would not have accepted his invitation so readily just two weeks before. But then, two weeks before, I wouldn’t have been on a plane to Paris, either.

He lead me up the plane, toward the nose, until we reached the thick security door that separated the cockpit from the rest of the plane. Stopping, he released my hand and tipped his face up to the ceiling. Finding what he was looking for, he stretched onto his toes to reach the handle of a hatch in the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Not providing an answer, he tugged the hatch down and with it came a small ladder. “Up you go,” he encouraged with a flick of his head.

“Should we be doing this?” I mumbled, anxiously.

“It’s fine,” he insisted, one hand snaking around my hip and guiding me to the steps.

Placed directly in front of him, I felt the heat of his solid frame at my back. As my hands tentatively folded around the ladder’s white rails, he shuffled forward, pressing himself more firmly against me. A very obvious, very large bulge was thrust to the small of my back and I felt all of the air leave my lungs.

“I want you too, Brooke,” he whispered, head dipped down so his cheek was resting against mine and the words brushed my skin. “I want you so bad.”

The tiny part of my brain that was still functioning rationally paused and wrestled over whether I was about to do something I’d regret.

Live for the moment, I reminded myself. Grab opportunities; experience new things. Well, Lance was certainly an opportunity and having sex with someone who’d been a stranger to me less than four hours before was definitely new.

Not that my internal conversation mattered anyway. The larger, lustful part of my mind was in control of my actions and had already compelled my feet to climb.

The ladder lead to an attic space above the cockpit. It had two bunks, one either side, and a narrow space between them. Both bunks were really just mattresses with white pillows at the head, red blankets folded at the bottom, and beige drapes that were hung on a rod above and swept open.

“I know it’s not much,” his voice called from below, as he began to follow. “But it’ll give us some privacy.”

“It’s fine,” I replied, turning to watch his dark head emerge through the hatch.

Smiling, he quickly took the last few rungs and yanked the opening back into place behind him.

“What if someone comes in?” I asked.

“They won’t,” he replied softly, taking a step toward me. “Cat’s told the flight crew that I’m getting some shuteye up here.”

“But-” I muttered.

“Don’t worry,” he smiled, placing both hands on my hips and tugging me toward him. “I promise, we’re not gonna be disturbed.” His fingers drawing lazy patterns, his grin brightened as he pressed himself against me.

The heat radiating from him was verging on scalding, and the pressure of his body caused my heart to leap into my throat. Struggling to swallow, I drew shallow breaths as I felt the rapidly flowing blood flush my cheeks.

He released me just long enough to chuck his jacket, allowing it to fall to the floor. Then, his hands were on me again, more insistent than before, hungry, lustful. As his head bent forward to claim my mouth, his fingers swept up the inside of my sweater, coming into contact with the bare skin beneath it.

At his touch, I arched, pressing my breasts more firmly into his hard chest as I accepted his open-mouthed desperate kiss. Tongues tangling and darting frantically back and forth, and breath coming in pants, he rubbed the bulge in his pants against my abdomen, causing me to moan deep in the back of my throat.

Desire pooled between my legs; raging and raw, the craving to be touched was flooring in its intensity and its suddenness. With mouths continuing to move voraciously over each other, my tongue was far too busy for words. Desperate to feel some relief from the ache, I reached to his right hand and eased it away from my breast.

He allowed me to guide him toward my jeans and when I released him long enough to unbutton them, he no longer needed direction. His fingers instantly slipped inside my pants and massaged me through my underwear.

“Ugh,” I grunted into his mouth, grinding feverishly against his hand.

His tongue stilled, and I felt his lips lift in a smile. Tearing his mouth from mine, he met my wild, hungry eyes. “You’re so sexy,” he uttered, his voice suddenly deeper and tinged with lust.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many women he’d seduced like this; he seemed well-practiced. However, those thoughts abandoned me in a hurry when he gently hooked the crotch of my panties aside. “Oh, God,” I whimpered, as his long, thick fingers parted my folds. Carefully, he stroked upward, lubricating himself with my arousal before reaching the tight, engorged and needy bud of my clitoris.

With expert movements, he rolled the pad of his index finger in small, slow circles. Feeling the strength seep from my legs, I hurriedly grabbed his shoulders to keep myself upright. Lance noted the effect he was having and smiled.

“God, Brooke,” he murmured. “You’re so warm…so wet.”

“Argh,” I cried, my eyes closing and head tipping back on a neck that no longer wanted to hold it. “Lance,” I panted, “I’m so close.”

“I know,” he whispered, replacing his finger with his thumb and allowing the longer digits to slide down to my entrance.

With a frantic jerk of my hips, I begged him to penetrate me. I did not care whether I looked like a slut. Nor did I care whether it was obvious how desperate I was and, therefore, how long it had been since I’d been touched that way. All that mattered was that he finished what he’d started.

I expected him, like every other man I’d known, to force his fingers deep into me in a quick, aggressive thrust. Men I’d slept with, if they bothered to prepare me at all, liked to use their fingers in the same way they used their dicks. However, Lance was full of surprises. He barely entered me at all. Instead, he used the tip of his index finger to circle my sex in the same rhythm he was stimulating my clit.

“Oh, God,” I exhaled, my nails digging into the hard muscles of his shoulders.

Gradually, so gradually, it made me want to scream, he slipped one finger into my channel. Even then, he only went as far as his second knuckle. In complete control over not just his body, but also mine, he traced the spongy flesh for a few seconds before pressing against the front wall.

The speed and accuracy with which he found my g-spot was truly something to behold. Yelping, I bucked against him, my head suddenly snapping upright and eyes wide. “Jesus,” I hissed.

“Good?” he asked, with a knowing chuckle.

“I…I…” I stammered, mouth dry and uncooperative.

His dark, dangerous eyes fixed on mine, he applied pressure and began to move his finger back and forth.

“Shit,” I screeched, losing my grasp of him and hands flailing to resume my hold.

Sparks of molten heat were shooting up from the juncture of my thighs, filling my belly. As though a vise had clasped my brain, I was focused on just two things: that feeling, and the sensual, lustful look in his eyes.

Fingers moving more purposefully as he sensed the coiling of the spring, Lance urged me to keep my eyes open. “I want to see them when you come,” he explained.

At any other time, I might have felt self-conscious about that, but I was too far gone to register anything beyond his command. Spiraling higher, I rocked against him, rubbing myself against the thumb that had stilled.

And then, before I was aware of what was happening; before I had expected it. The wave crashed over me, stealing my breath and making me senseless to everything beyond it. I forced my lids to remain open, and kept my eyes on his. What I saw within those bright, vibrant depths was enough to make me shiver with a second orgasm.

Chapter Six

My entire body was thrumming with the aftershocks of the climax. I was in a daze as the next few seconds passed, I wasn’t aware of Lance undressing me; wasn’t aware of him undressing himself either. My conscious brain only kicked in again when I was laying on one of the bunks, looking up at him as he confidently rolled a condom down the length of his shaft.

Lower jaw dropping open, I simply gaped at the size of him. I’d known he was big, I’d felt that when he was still clothed. However, I was not prepared for just how large he was. Not just impressive in length, it was also thick. It was easily bigger than anything I’d seen in the flesh, and a good match for what I’d seen in the few porn flicks I’d watched.

God, or mother nature, depending on your point of view, had been very kind to Lance. Being well-hung was not the end of his gifts. Above his noteworthy groin was a thin waist, defined abdominal muscles and a broad, bulky chest.

“You okay?” he asked, his hands falling from his sheathed manhood and his face peering down at me.

“Yeah,” I nodded, breathlessly.

“You sure?” he asked, running a hand through the hair that was no longer sitting quite so neatly and had fallen onto his forehead.

“Come here,” I smiled, holding out my hand to him.

Reaching out, he interlaced his fingers with mine, taking a step as I gently drew him closer. “You’re beautiful,” he said, eyes moving over my naked form.

Forcing myself into a sitting position, I lifted my face to him, silently requesting a kiss. He provided it instantly and generously, his lips moving sensually and teasingly over mine before his tongue and mine resumed their acquaintance.

As the kiss lingered, he lifted one knee onto the bed and placed it between my slightly parted legs. Slowly, he lowered his weight, urging me back into the mattress. Melting into the bed, I instinctively spread my thighs inviting him to settle between them.

Graceful and steady, Lance lifted his other leg onto the bunk and braced his hands either side of my arms. The rubber of the condom brushed my inner thigh and my hips involuntarily writhed in response.

“Hmm,” he mumbled against my lips, before leaving them to trail my neck, my breastbone and then the tight peaks of my nipples with his tongue.

Both of my hands tenderly cupped the back of his head, fingers lacing in his thick hair. “Oh,” I mewled contently, curling one leg over his lower back.

His hot, wet mouth sucked enthusiastically on my soft flesh as his lower body began to settle into the cradle of my hips. Squashed against the top of my thigh, I realized his straining member still hadn’t been attended to. I couldn’t be sure how long we’d been in the flight crew’s sleeping quarters, but Lance was unquestionably showing more restraint than any boyfriend I’d had. The very fact that he’d brought me to orgasm before focusing on his own needs made me feel a rush of affection for him.

“I want you inside me,” I breathed.

Head lifting, his dilated pupils struggled to focus. “Sure you’re ready?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I nodded. “I’m more than ready.” In truth, given the size of him, I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready. I did, however, know that I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I’d never felt so horny in my life; never been so desperate to feel a man fill me.

“Okay,” he nodded, before his face sank down to mine and he kissed me again. His right hand meanwhile had left the mattress and was moving between our bodies. Carefully, he took himself in his fingers and guided the condom-covered tip toward my waiting sex.

Both gasping rapidly, our lips separated. I looked up into his face, fascinated with the little tick of his jaw as he seemed to struggle with his profound patience and control. The fact that his mounting need, which was almost becoming unmanageable, was for me, made me feel indescribably sexy.

Urging him to let himself off the tight leash he’d forced on himself, I wrapped my other leg around him, crossing my ankles just above his buttocks. Then, I pulled him to me.

The fat, rounded tip of his shaft entered slowly, stretching the tight circle of my entrance. As I felt that delightful swell of flesh, just the right side of painful, I tossed my head back into the pillow and released a groan of pleasure.

No longer needing to be guided, Lance left his manhood and both hands returned to the mattress. My fingers stroked up the length of his forearms, before trying to curl around his thick biceps. I found them so taut that I realized he was still holding back.

“More,” I panted, tightening my legs around his waist.

He inched a little further, making my eyes pop with the sensation. He felt even bigger than he’d looked. My channel flexed, muscles contracting and releasing hurriedly in their attempt to expand for him.

“Ugh,” he groaned, eyes shut and chin dipped to his chest.

Puffing out rampant breaths, I continued to coax him, just as desperate to satisfy him as I was to find my own pleasure at being joined with him. “I want you,” I whispered, hands clasping his upper arms roughly. “I want you deep inside me.”

“Brooke,” he wheezed, hips jerking slightly as the last vestige of his control fought against his primal desire. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t hurt me,” I insisted. “Please, Lance, I need you.”

“Oh, God,” he panted, hips driving suddenly forward until he was buried to the hilt.

“Argh,” I cried out, my brain reeling from a bizarre mixture of discomfort and intense pleasure. Stretched and filled so deep that I thought his shaft might penetrate my stomach, I clung to his sweaty skin not wanting him to ever leave me.

“Are…are you alright?” he asked shakily.

“Yes,” I replied quickly. “Yes! Oh, God. Lance, you feel so good.”

“You feel good,” he echoed, kissing my temple, then my cheekbone and finally finding my lips. “So tight” he mumbled against my mouth. “So good,” he added, before gently sliding his hard rod from me.

I groaned as his rigid length swept along the slick softness of my body until he was just hovering at the entrance. “Harder,” I whispered.

This time, he didn’t ask questions. With a masculine grunt of breath, he slammed his hips to mine, forcing his erection deeper than before.

“Oh, yes!” I screeched, finding an explosive pleasure that I’d never experienced before. Clitoral orgasms had always been my thing, with my g-spot occasionally having been stimulated by hand – mostly my own. Until Lance, I’d never noticed anything particularly pleasurable in good, old-fashioned thrusting.

Whether it was his size, his style or something else, I do not know. But I do know, that I quickly found myself on the verge of climaxing once more.

“Brooke,” he breathed, withdrawing and readying himself to drive into me again. “Oh, damn, you’re so beautiful,” he muttered.

“Faster,” I begged. “Harder.”

My quietly spoken plea triggered something in him, causing him to break into a rapid pumping rhythm. Each time, he went as deep as he possibly could and withdrew almost completely.

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Oh, Christ.”

The movement of his shaft was hurried, but no less conscious of me. Although I didn’t seem to know exactly what he was doing that felt so good, but he continued giving me exactly what I needed. Feeling the familiar tightness building, I began to roll my hips, stimulating my clit against his pubic bone whenever it was close enough to be pressed against me.

“Lance,” I yelped, head thrown back into the pillow. “Yes, yes,” I mumbled. “Yes!” I screamed, the sound echoing around the small quarters and joining the throbbing of my racing heart beat against my eardrums. As the climax struck me like tiny electric shocks, my entire body shook, writhed and jerked beneath him.

“Oh, God, Brooke,” he hissed, suddenly stiffening. He held that tense pose, with eyes tightly shut and even the muscles in his buttocks clenched, for a fraction of a second. And then, his hips jerked against mine and he exhaled a shaky breath. “Jeez,” he mumbled, slowly opening his eyes as his lower half continued to roll in lazy circles that, unbeknownst to him (or maybe not unbeknownst to him), was causing my orgasm to roll on and on; less intense than in the first few seconds, but undoubtedly still there.

“Wow,” I sighed, staring at the curved, white ceiling. “That was incredible,” I added, thinking aloud.

“It was amazing,” he breathed, letting the weight of his upper body slowly press me into the mattress before resting his face in the crook of my neck. “You’re amazing,” he whispered, lips grazing my skin.

“Ha,” I chuckled. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“I am,” he affirmed sincerely.

I could feel his member softening, but he did not pull it from me. I was glad that he didn’t. In no hurry to break the closeness I felt with him, I would have been happy to lie like that for hours.

“Brooke,” he hummed, lifting his weary head, “where are you going to be staying in Paris?”

“Um,” I replied, shaking my foggy head. Unlike him, I was in no state to talk about anything other than what we’d just done and, even then, preferably in words of one syllable or less. “Um,” I continued to mutter nonsensically. “Well…I don’t actually know,” I told him quietly. “I mean, I left New York very last minute and didn’t bother to book a hotel. I figured I could just wander around and find one with a free room.”

“Oh,” he replied nodding before resting his forehead to mine. “Well, yeah, you could do that, I guess.” After a moment’s silence, he added, “Or you could spend a couple of days with me.”

“Hmm?” I asked, wrapping my arms around his back and drawing patternless shapes on his clammy skin with my palm.

“I’ll have some free time during the conference,” he explained. “So, we could spend it together. What do you think?”

Suddenly panicked, I was quiet. I’d thought we were just fooling around. It hadn’t entered my head that he might want to pursue a relationship outside of our mile high club adventure.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Lance, I,” I began apologetically. “I should have been more clear before we…did this, I’m not really looking for anything heavy right now, you know? I’m trying to…well, I’m just trying to have some fun.”

Lifting his head from its perch on mine, he tipped it back just far enough that he could look into my eyes. With the same broad smile he’d worn when I first saw him, he brushed a strand of hair from my face. “That’s all I’m talking about,” he said tenderly. “Having fun.”

“Oh,” I sighed, reflecting his grin. “You mean the kind of fun you’ve just shown me?”

“Something like that,” he chuckled.

“In that case, why not?” I laughed, lifting my head and pressing my lips to his.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

Please visit Amaz0n to view the next books in this series.

Loving Him Peacefully

by

Lisa Martin

Chapter One

I sighed as I pushed the small pile of paperwork on my desk to the side, into the stack that would simply have to wait until tomorrow. It seemed like no matter how much I got through in a day, there was an endless supply of it that would be there, sitting and taunting me.

Yes. The paperwork is taunting you. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s part of the job. I rubbed my head with the tips of my fingers, the stressed out thoughts fighting for the dominant spot in my head. It had been a long day, and an even longer week, the hours stretching into endless measurements of time that seemed determined to be as difficult as possible. My head was throbbing from the complications that had arisen with one of our clients, a man that was filing his first patent with our company, and who was the problem that had been preoccupying my time when I should have been working on other things.

They were claiming that their rights had been violated in part, something about a breach of confidentiality on their patent, which hadn’t even technically been sealed yet. I was head of the patent research and enforcement team. Most of the research legwork was done by the up and comers, the same type of person that I had been when I’d first started here.

But even with my standing there, this wasn’t something that should have come across my desk. There was no way that I should have even had to worry about the mess that the case had become, but the two partners who owned the business where off gallivanting around the world, nearly impossible to reach unless they wanted to be, and the other executive who ran the office with me had his head so far up his backside that I was always surprised he was able to find his way in the front door of the building. The immediate board members were demanding answers, and there was no one else besides me qualified or willing to take on dealing with the case, hiring the lawyer, and seeing it through.

I had been a part of Trestmont Inc. for nearly eight years, and had been an executive, and acting member of the board, for the last two. I had poured my blood, sweat and tears into building the company. I hadn’t done it single handedly by any means, but I’d certainly done more than my share of the work to make it what it was.

I had done all that I could for today, looking over the information and lining up an appointment with a lawyer for next week. I needed to go home, get some rest, and get all of this garbage out of my head for a little while. Maybe even call my mother, who I hadn’t made the time to talk to in nearly a month.

When was the last time you ever made time for her? I thought irritably to myself.

When I’d gotten a scholarship to the state university of my choice, I had left the two bedroom apartment that she’d moved us to after my father passed away, and put myself through school at a pace that was unthinkable to most people. Eighteen hours most semesters, fifteen at the end when I got down to my senior level classes. I only went home for holidays on occasion, one day, maybe two, at a time.

And that had been my life. No second guessing where I wanted to go, or how hard I was willing to work to get there, aside from the small blip on my resume that had deviated from the corporate world. I had thought that I was interested in teaching, helping people in that way, before I found out that standardized testing was taking over the profession, and that they got paid next to nothing. Still, a double major looked good on any resume, so I proceeded, entirely unsure what I would do with it when I was done with college; but knowing that having both business and educational skills couldn’t hurt me in the long run.

Working in a corporate firm, my first choice of careers hadn’t been quite as fulfilling as the idealized version I had built up in my head. But it did give me a comfortable lifestyle, allowed me to interact with people and in this kind of economy, I couldn’t ask for more. At the time I consoled myself with the saying that my father used to say when he would come home from a long day of work: “They wouldn’t call it work if you enjoyed it.”

I just had no idea at the time that the effort it had taken to get me there, that the money and stability that I had become used to, wasn’t going to last forever. That last day was the proverbial calm before the storm. The final time that I would experience the normality that my life had started to revolve around.

***

“Mrs. Rougio?”

My assistant poked her head in the door, a clipboard in her hand, pleasant as ever, except for the tired lines that had appeared around her eyes in the past few months.

“Wimberly, how many times have I asked you to call me Katherine or Kate, or anything but my last name?” I asked her with a small smile. My last name was such a mouthful to anyone who hadn’t grown up pronouncing its vaguely Italian sounding pronunciation.

“Sorry, Mrs. Katherine,” she corrected herself, pushing her glasses a little further up her young and eager face, “But Mr. Jones is asking for you.”

I looked at the clock, which was showing three minutes until five. “And this can’t wait?”

“He seemed pretty insistent,” she told me apologetically. “But I can tell him I didn’t manage to catch you before you left?”

“Don’t worry about it.” With a wave of my hand, I dismissed her for the weekend. “Why don’t you go and get some rest. Maybe have some fun. I won’t need you on call this weekend.”

Her eyes lit up. “Thanks, Katherine.”

“Anytime,” I replied, watching a genuinely happy smile replace the girl’s tired features. It was always nice when I could manage to do something for someone else. I pushed myself away from the desk and stood to my full height, stretching my arms from the long hours of sitting. My feet were aching from the heels that they were squished into, and it was all I could do to not kick them off in that instant.

I knocked softly on the door to Mr. Jones, the head of the board’s, office, which was just down the hall from mine, on the topmost floor of the building. The instant that I walked in, all thoughts of kicking off my shoes fled from my mind. I was suddenly very, very fearful for my job.

They didn’t gather all of the board members together just to promote someone or pass along good news.

“Katherine,” Mr. Jones said, waving his hand and motioning me forward into the room, where four other men were pressed around his desk, looking uncomfortable, and stifled. None of them would look me in the eye, which did not do anything good for my nerves.

“Is everything all right?” I made sure that my voice sounded as strong as it was able to under the circumstances. The business world preyed on any kind of weakness, and these men were circling like vultures.

“No, actually, which is why I called you in,” he said. He gave a long sigh, like he had been thinking long and hard about something. “I need your help with a problem that’s on our hands, Katherine.”

“Anything, sir,” I told him. The feeling of relief over not being called in to be fired was so overwhelming that I almost didn’t catch his next words.

“I’m glad to hear it. I need you to delete all records we have of Oliver Bertrand, and the pending patent paperwork we have concerning his product.”

Chapter Two

Oliver Bertrand. The name that had been on the breach of confidentiality agreement that had come across my desk. They wanted me to delete all records of him.

“If I may,” I asked, my voice finally starting to show a little bit of a worried wobble behind the words, “Why are you asking me to do this? Why not simply do it yourself?” I knew how disrespectful the words sounded, but I couldn’t keep them from coming out of my mouth.

“Don’t worry Katherine, I’m not asking you to do anything illegal,” he said, making a motion like he was trying to assure me, and not doing so in the slightest. “We haven’t pushed through with the paperwork yet, so technically we can delete the files, as though we never had them in the first place.”

“But…won’t that be hard to do? He’s already filed a petition for breach of confidentiality on our contract,” I responded, shaking my head slowly from side to side. Even if I could do what they were proposing, it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be ethical, no matter whether or not it was technically legal.

“He’s started the beginnings of a petition. He needs documentation to move forward, which will take him at least a few weeks to get a court order to retrieve. But by that time, the files will be long gone. Mr. Bertrand will have never been listed as a client with Trestmont.” Mr. Jones sounded so sure of himself, so confident that this would work and that I would do what was being asked of me.

“But if Mr. Bertrand doesn’t get his patent, won’t his competition be able to lay claim to his ideas?” I asked, almost stumbling over the words. My heart was pounding ferociously in my chest, my breath starting to shorten from the panic that I felt over being asked to do something like this.

Mr. Jones stroked the length of his chin, his fingers scratching at the short stubble of hair that was stretched across it. “Mr. Bertrand’s problems of losing his patent would no longer be our problem, once this matter is taken care of.”

“Isn’t there another way to handle this? My mind was scrambling for any kind of answer that would break me out of this shell, get me out from in between a rock and a hard place.

“Do you think,” one of the board members behind Mr. Jones said dangerously, placing his hand flat on the desk and moving himself forward, “that we would resort to this if there were any other options left to us?”

“What Mr. Hatton is trying to say,” Mr. Jones interrupted, his eyes darting nervously to his college and then back to me, probably afraid that the man would say more than what was necessary, “Is that we have reached the end of the line. We respect that fact that this is a difficult decision, but it is one that you need to make if you intend to continue working for us.”

“So that’s it.” It was a statement, not a question. They couldn’t risk me staying there and working for them if they didn’t know that I would be one hundred percent loyal to their cause. The sad thing was, up until about five minutes ago, I would have fought tooth and nail to keep my position there, I would have defended the company’s abilities and trustworthiness in front of a damn jury.

How wrong I had been.

“How long do I have to give you an answer?” I asked quietly, looking from man to man, searching for something to give me some hope. Mr. Jones sounded cold and indifferent when he answered me.

“We need your answer by the end of the day, Katherine. If I don’t hear from you this evening, I’ll assume that you aren’t serious about keeping your job here.”

“I’ll let you know.” My answer was short and curt, nearly matching the tone that he had used when talking to me. I gave him a slight tilt of my head, having lost all respect for him. I knew he was in a bad position. Hiring a lawyer for the company would look bad, would run off other potential clients, and would be costly and expensive, not to mention probably centered in the public eye. He wanted to keep his company alive. But that didn’t justify stepping on someone else to get there.

I walked from the building that had meant so much to me over most of the past decade. A piece of me, the weakest part, threatened to well up with tears, wanting to rid itself of the worry that had invaded my body and made itself so comfortable. Another part marveled at how, half an hour ago, my biggest worry had been the shoes on my feet. But the most dominant part, the part that led me out of the building and kept me going, was the part that just wanted to forget it all. To not remember that it mattered.

***

I couldn’t even bring myself to crawl into the confining space of my car. The car that had been bought and paid for by my endless hours spent at this company. The luxurious car that I’d saved and drooled over like a teenage boy seeing a Porsche for the first time. It had meant so much to me at the time, a symbol that I was finally moving up in the world.

Now? I couldn’t give a damn about the stupid thing, couldn’t get away from it fast enough. I relied on my own two feet to carry me as far from that building and that lifestyle as they possibly could. The world that I had so longed to belong to, and for so long been a part of, suddenly seemed full of treacherous uncertainties.

How many other times had they done something like this without telling me? Suddenly, I was reliving everyone that had been let go in my time there, analyzing every little moment that seemed suspicious to my sleep deprived, and strung out on worry, mind.

Stop doing this to yourself! The command was coming from whatever sense of self-preservation that I had left. I was going to drive myself crazy trying to discover some meaning behind it all. They were doing something corrupt, plain and simple. It didn’t mean that there was some great, big conspiracy theory behind it, did it?

No. But it means that you don’t want to be a part of it.

I struggled with the realization, but it had taken root, and refused to be pulled up and cast out. The truth was, I was more than just a little uncomfortable with what they were asking me to do.

So the question became, not if, but when. I only had a few hours to call them and tell them what I was thinking, or they would let me go anyway. At least this way, I could do it on my own terms. It may not mean much to some people, but that was the difference between being dragged to your own death, or walking into it with your head held high. In the end, I would still be terminated, my work life there cut short, but it would be of my own doing.

Because I would not be a part of ruining a man’s life, legal or not. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair.

Chapter Three

I picked my cell phone up out of my pocket, only allowing myself one terrified moment to stare at the tiny black device before taking a deep breath, and dialing the number to the office. It couldn’t be put off any longer. My decision was already made, so why waste the time and energy letting it eat away at me for even longer?

The phone only rang twice before it was picked up.

“Clarence Jones,” came the voice on the other end of the phone, businesslike and straightforward, even though by now it was after hours, and there couldn’t have been many clients calling.

“Mr. Jones,” I started, “It’s Katherine.”

“Have you made your decision yet?” He asked. His tone was flat, neutral, with no anticipation in it. He must have inferred from my tone of voice that I wouldn’t be participating in his plan.

“I have, sir. I won’t be erasing the evidence of Mr. Bertrand from the computer system.”

“I see,” he said slowly. I could almost imagine him stroking his beard again with his hands as he spoke to me. The image didn’t help the nervous flutters in my gut that were stemming from the displeased sound of his voice. “I’m sorry to hear that Katherine. You were a valuable asset to our company. Are you sure that you won’t reconsider?”

“I’m sure.” My voice was firm and unyielding. No matter what the cost, I couldn’t bend my own morals around something that was obviously and totally wrong.

“Then I’m afraid this is good-bye. You can come and collect your belongings first thing Monday morning. Return your key to me before you leave.” Click. The phone line went dead as Mr. Jones slammed the receiver into the cradle, making me wince at the sound.

There would be other jobs. But at least I could go home to bed that night, and know that I hadn’t compromised my beliefs, that I hadn’t been the one to do the wrong thing. And at the end of the day, that had to matter more than a comfortable lifestyle, right?

At least, that’s what I told myself at first. And to be honest, I still did believe it. But that knowledge was hard to hold on to when I was suddenly struggling to pay for even a cup of coffee in the morning, and an off-brand version of macaroni and cheese had become the dinner menu almost every night. I was suddenly reliving all of my horrible college days, where I’d been scrounging around to be able to pay for classes and my crappy off campus apartment.

So it wasn’t luck that I had a huge savings to dip into now, one that I’d been working on as soon as I got out of college. Too many friends and relatives had gotten into debt early on in their life for me not to realize the importance of saving money for a rainy day. Not to mention, working and going to school full time had taught me the full value of a dollar.

I’d already considered giving up my apartment and trying to find something smaller and more appropriate for my new budget, which was currently, nothing, but by the time I’d broken the contract on my current apartment, paid a deposit on the new place, and hired someone to move my stuff, I would have been paying almost as much as just staying the last few months.

I had a job interview the next morning, so I had allowed myself the luxury of having a nice dinner and a long, hot soak in the bathtub before getting out and laying down. I wanted to make sure that I felt completely myself for the interview the next morning.

Things will be back to normal soon, I told myself sleepily, just before drifting off.

But no amount of preparing could have changed what went down at the course of that meeting. It was clear from the very moment that I walked through the doors that the interview had been a courtesy, a way of not turning me down without appearing to give me a chance.

“I have several recommendation letters,” I said, pushing them towards him, “And all of my skills listed, along with how long I worked at my recent job.”

The interviewer’s doughy round face turned slightly red at the mention of my previous position. “This appears to be quite an impressive resume Katherine…but I’m afraid we just can’t use you.” The words rang in my ears, quite similar to so many of the interviews that I had been to lately. Every single place I’d been had placed an ad for needing an executive, or at least a position with the possibility of advancement. I had the skills, the ambition, the work ethic. And yet somehow, they didn’t’ need my services.

“I promise Mr. Etterly, I am an extremely hard worker,” I begged, trying to plead my case, even though he was trying to shut me down. But he shook his head before I’d even finished speaking.

“It’s not that I don’t doubt your abilities. I’m sure you’re very capable. But the thing is…” he said, lowering his voice and folding his hands together, “We’re team players here Miss Rugio. I can’t hire an employee when I can’t trust that they won’t do as they’re asked.”

I sat straight up in my seat, finally understanding.

“Let me guess,” I said, aware that my icy tone was completely unprofessional, and still not caring in the slightest. “When Mr. Jones found out I had an interview with your company, he felt the need to personally call and give you his opinion on me.”

The man shrugged, almost apologetically. “We place a lot of emphasis on prior employer’s comments, and the reasons that the employee left the company.”

“So I’ve been…what? Blacklisted? I’m not allowed to work in the industry?” Outrage filled my voice. It wasn’t bad enough that Jones had fired me for not doing something that was borderline illegal, no matter what he said, but now he had to go and keep me from getting a job anywhere else?

“I appreciate your time,” the man said, standing and offering his hand to me, apparently unwilling or unable to say anymore.

“Yeah, thanks.” My mind was distracted, wheels spinning, and anger fuming underneath my skin. I couldn’t bring myself to be any nicer, although I knew I was burning what little of the bridge was left between myself and a possible employer.

I had hardly walked out of the building before pulling out my phone and angrily dialing Mr. Jones’s direct line.

“Hello?” He asked, after answering the phone with his name, the same way that he always had. “Hello?”

“Mr. Jones,” I said coldly, “Can you tell me exactly what you think you’re doing by jeopardizing my job interviews?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean Katherine.” His voice sounded wary, like he was itching to put the phone down before I had a chance to say anything else. But I wasn’t going to give him that chance.

“Like hell you don’t!” I spat out. “I saw the news about Reese Simpson getting the patent for the same thing Oliver Bertrand had pushed for. Imagine how well the public would take it if they knew that was only because you sabotaged him?” Threatening normally wasn’t my area of expertise, but I knew how worried Jones had been when all of the stuff with Oliver was going on. He had to be ten times more nervous now that he’d almost gotten away with it, only to have me bringing it up again now.

“What,” he asked, anger in his voice, “…what exactly are you trying to say?”

“Let me be very clear. Don’t try to keep me from getting another job. Or I’ll make sure that everyone knows it was your doing that Oliver’s patent fell through. Proof or not, it’s going to be pretty hard to talk your way out of.”

“It’s already done,” he insisted. “And I pulled quite a lot of strings to have it accomplished. There’s nothing that I can do about it now.”

“Then undo it.” I hung up on him, slamming down the phone the same way that he had done to me a few weeks prior. That self-righteous….words weren’t bad enough to describe how I felt about him.

The street outside the office that I had gone to the interview in was bustling, crowded and busy with both tourists and people trying to get to work. It would have been nice if I were one of the ones lucky enough to be going to a job.

It was starting to get cold, the chill of fall seeping in and taking over. My anger didn’t subside as I walked through the chilly weather, and if anything I grew angrier at my predicament.

I didn’t deserve this. I had been a damn good employee, a great employee. They had no right to do this to me. I had given everything that I had to that company, only for them to fire me for something that…

At that very moment, my train of thought was cut off by catching sight of a bright, boldly lettered sign that was across the street, hanging on the length of a cyclone fence.

Have you always thought that helping others was your calling? Do you have experience with volunteer work, or would you like to?

Then the Peace Corps might be for you!

Come volunteer today!

A number was listed under it, but it was unnecessary. The small building behind it had a sign that clearly displayed it as the local outpost and headquarters of the volunteer organization.

***

It was an impulse decision. That’s all I can say, other than claiming some kind of temporary insanity. When I thought of the Peace Corps I always envisioned people digging ditches in Vietnam or immunizing sick kids in Africa. None of which was bad, not in the slightest, but when I’d pictured my life, I had never seen it in that way.

Would it really be so bad?

I would probably have done more good working with them than in the entire eight years I’d been at Trestmont. And fighting with Jones was like trying to win a battle that was already lost. Threatening him wouldn’t do me any good in the long run, except maybe put some pressure on him for a while.

But as I started to walk towards the slightly run down looking office, the heavy feeling that had been in my heart since I’d gotten fired, seemed to finally be lifting. That’s when I knew that I was making the right decision.

There were two people sitting at desks when I walked in. One was sitting with a short blonde haired girl, filling out some paperwork. The other one, a middle-aged woman with shoulder length red hair, jumped up at my entrance, like she’d been waiting for something.

“Good morning!” She said enthusiastically, already handing me a flyer and eyeing me like she was sizing me up. With an approving nod, she continued speaking. “Are you interested in volunteering? We have six offices in the whole state, but we have been a bit short on volunteers as of late. Hence, the new sign out front.”

“That’s actually why I came in.” I took a deep breath and then looked her dead in the eyes. “Where do I sign up?”

She laughed, a small, tinkling giggle that made me feel better, not like she was making fun of me. “I appreciate the enthusiasm. Let’s talk, see where you’d best be suited, and we’ll get you figured out and then sign the papers!”

She clapped her hand on my shoulder and led me to her desk. As I sat down to talk with her, I realized for the first time in almost a decade, I felt good about what I was doing.

Chapter Four

The airport around me was humming with activity, people, shuttles and trolley’s bustling from place to place within its walls. I know it’s crazy, but at that moment, it felt like it was reflecting the nervous energy that was building in anticipation inside of me.

The two weeks that had passed hadn’t been able to go by quickly enough, but now that I was finally here, time seemed to move even slower. I had only been waiting about fifteen minutes to go through baggage claim, but it felt like days.

I kept a close eye on the arrivals and departures board. Flight to Brazil, scheduled layover in Florida, Estimated Departure—2:00 p.m.

My flight. The start to my new life. They’d decided that because of my degree in Teaching and Education, that I would be most useful teaching at one of the schools that had been set up for underprivileged children that lived in the Amazon. The tribe had reluctantly agreed to let Americans build a school near their village, and I would be allowed to stay there, to help them grow and thrive in whatever ways I possibly could.

It was more nerve-wracking than any job interview I’d ever had, or any case that I’d handled at Trestmont. I was actually going to be responsible for doing something, for teaching something, that could change someone’s life. It had taken me the full two weeks not only to pack, but to get my ideas together, although I had been told I would have to restructure my lesson plans based on what level the children were at.

I glanced another look at my watch. 1:30. The plane would be allowing people to board soon, so at least I wouldn’t have to sit at the gate for very long. The crowd of people around me thinned as each made stops at the flight gates that they would be leaving from until there were only a handful of people left. One of them was a handsome man that looked around my age, sitting and reading a newspaper.

I didn’t want to keep staring, but once I had noticed him, it was hard not to. The angled curve of his chin had a five o’clock shadow just gracing the tanned skin, which he rubbed with a calloused hand as he turned the page of the newspaper. His blue eyes looked mysterious and haunted, and lay beneath a strong brow, which was creased with his deep concentration. His short, dark hair was cut in a sensible way, and he was biting the soft pink hue of his bottom lip as he read the paper. All in all, he was the most attractive man that I’d ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on, and my eyes, devious traitors that they were, wouldn’t stop from stealing glances at him every chance that they could.

The last time that I looked up, right before the trolley stopped at the gate that I needed to get off at, I found that those incredible blue eyes happened to meet mine. He was staring at me. The realization made me blush, and fumble with the handle of my suitcase as the trolley lurched to a stop, where the baggage abruptly fell over. I reached down to grab it, but before I could, I felt another hand reach for it as well.

“Please, allow me.”

The man’s voice was just as attractive as the rest of him, gravely and somehow soft at the same time. It couldn’t have been nicer if he’d sat in front of a mirror and practiced it. I gave him a smile of thanks and backed off, letting him pick up the suitcase for me, aware of the fact that his muscles picked up the case a lot easier than I would have been able to.

“Is this your first trip to Brazil?” He asked conversationally, as we walked from the seats of the trolley to the line that had already formed for boarding the flight. There weren’t that many passengers in front of us, but enough that we had the time to get out our identification and tickets to show to the gate guard.

“Yes, actually.” Something about the man made me almost nervous. Perhaps it was just his good looks, or the fact that I didn’t hardly know him, and no matter how good looking he was, it wasn’t exactly sensible to go out giving your personal information to strangers.

“Business or pleasure?” He asked. Before I could answer, he gave his passport and ticket to the woman at the counter, who scanned it with a bored expression before waving him forward.

Instead of moving on, however, he waited for me, making it look like just standing there should have landed him a spot in a magazine. Finally, he returned the baggage to my outstretched hand as I passed through the security checkpoint and entered the tunnel that connected to the plane. It was almost too easy to fall into step with him, although his stride was much longer than mine.

“A little bit of both,” I said finally, aware that I still hadn’t answered his question and that he was still waiting for one expectantly.

“Same here.” His smile made me feel like a school girl with a crush. I wondered if he knew what kind of effect he had on people, or if he was genuinely a good natured person that was completely unaware of what his smile could do to a woman. Butterflies filled up my stomach, a sensation that I hadn’t felt, or rather hadn’t allowed myself to feel, for a very long time.

We discovered on the plane that we had conjoining seats, coincidence of all coincidences, so we were allowed to continue our conversation as the other seats filled with people.

His name was Charles Reid, he was in his mid-thirties, and he enjoyed reading and playing softball in an adult league. He admitted to me halfway through the flight, and a quarter the way through a glass of scotch, that he also enjoyed watching HGTV, the home and garden channel, on slow days when he had no work to do.

“It’s my guilty pleasure,” he said shrugging and taking another sip of his glass. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing just a little at the fact that the man’s guilty pleasure involved watching people renovate houses and design rooms. It hardly seemed the kind of skeleton that most people had in their closet.

“Everyone has a guilty pleasure,” I told him, voicing my thoughts, unable to wipe the smile from my face, “but I don’t think you have to worry about yours making headline news.”

“All right then,” he said, leaning a little closer to me in his seat. I took in a deep breath at the unexpected movement.

“All right,” he said again, clearly aware of the sudden heat between us as he backed off a little, “then what’s yours?”

“My guilty pleasure?” I asked. My voice sounded breathless, like I’d just run a marathon. All from one small movement on his part. His blue eyes searched mine for a moment, like they were penetrating me, seeing right down to my soul.

“I don’t have one.” I said.

“You just said that everyone has one,” he reminded me, tapping his head as if to say the thought had come out of his own head instead of mine.

“Well, most of the general population does.” I couldn’t stop my face from turning a little red.

“Aha!” He exclaimed loudly, pointing his hand in my direction.

The man on the other side of me looked at the two of us like we had lost our minds. We both gave a sheepish little grin at him and then turned back to each other.

“Tell me what it is,” he demanded, more quietly this time, but still just as insistent. “I told you mine.”

“Fine.” There really was no arguing with him when he wanted something. Even in the short time I had known Charles Reid, I could already discern that.

“Sometimes, sometimes, mind you, when I’ve had an awful day, or am just in the mood for it…I…I listen to bluegrass.”

I expected him to wrinkle his nose, or to laugh, but he just kind of made a face and said, “I didn’t expect you to be a banjo picking type girl.”

The fact that he even knew what it was astonished me. Most people didn’t listen to bluegrass, much less know what kind of instruments played a part in it. “You listen to that kind of music?”

“I travel a lot. Hear a lot of different genres of music,” he told me. It seemed that the longer he spoke, the bluer and deeper his eyes got, like they were a deep pool of water threatening to suck me in. How was that possible?

“Mmmm-hmm.” I said, nodding, and almost losing track of what he was saying.

The rest of the long flight was spent talking about our different various likes and dislikes of food, movies, music and everything in between. I knew different odds and ends about Charles, or as he finally asked me to call him, Charlie, but I couldn’t tell you where the man had lived, or what he did for a living. It was strange, knowing a person so well and so quickly, and yet, not really knowing them at all.

It seemed almost too quickly that the captain was speaking to us, telling us that we would be landing shortly. We had talked for five hours, not even noticing that the time was passing by as quickly as the ground beneath us. It had been nice, pleasant. Not like the weather in Florida when we landed.

Even though we weren’t off the plane yet, I could already practically feel the moisture and heat of the coastal state, and I cringed, thinking of the mosquitoes and other creatures out there that were practically dying to get a hold of a tasty thing like me.

“I hate swamps,” I said, whining slightly. “They really aren’t my thing.”

“Have you ever actually been to Florida before?” He asked me, raising his eyebrows and grabbing both of our luggage cases from the compartment overhead. He sat them down on the floor, allowing me a moment to grab it before heading down the small aisle.

“No, but I’ve been to Louisiana once. Kind of the same thing, right? Mosquitoes, muggy weather, heat?”

He shook his head sadly, and even though I couldn’t see his face right at that moment, I could imagine the pitiful and sarcastic look he was making. “You poor, misguided creature. You have much to learn.”

“As long as it involves me learning from the confines of this airport…” I muttered under my breath.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to observe the wonders, or lack thereof, that Florida offered. It looked like the layover wouldn’t be the two hours that the flight had originally promised. The airport traffic had been held at a standstill until some impending, doomsday thunderstorm passed over, which we were informed could be anywhere from three hours to ten. The rain clouds around the terminal seemed dark and threatening, ominously laughing at our bad fortune.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” The statement was more to myself than anyone else, but Charlie, who had been standing next to me, hearing the same information that I had, simply rolled his eyes.

“You’re such a drama queen. At least they’re putting you up in a hotel for the night.” His words were teasing, not harsh, but I still smacked him on the arm for it. Like we were old friends. It was strange how talking to someone for a few hours could make a difference.

They were putting us, and the rest of the people who were still trudging on to Brazil in a hotel that was right next to the airport. The deluge of rain nearly drowned us all as we ran, suitcases in hand, from one building to the next, finding our safe and warm place to spend the night.

Chapter Five

When we finally got to the hotel, they had dry warm towels waiting at the front door, maids and doormen offering any kind of service that they could, trying to up-sell the moment we walked through the door.

“Talk about service,” Charlie said, grabbing two towels, one for himself and one for me, and telling the maid thanks. I almost didn’t see him reach into his pocket to give her a wadded up bill. A tip. The man really couldn’t be any more perfect if he tried.

“I wish that it wasn’t raining in the first place,” I said, observing the downpour and lightening outside, trying to distract myself from thoughts that I shouldn’t be having in the first place.

“You do know that the rainforest is one of the wettest and warmest places on earth?” He asked, his voice sounding disbelieving. The soft, low words made my mind drift to other places, other things that could be warm and wet with a little attention.

Good Lord. It was like being around this man had turned some kind of switch on inside of me.

“You’d better get used to it for the duration of your stay.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked. I was so busy trying not to think about the images that had just been flashing through my mind of he and I, in a much darker room, doing certain unnamable things, that I hadn’t been paying attention to what he’d been saying.

“I said, you’d better get used to the weather if you’re going to be staying in the rainforest.” He waved his hand in front of my face, like I wasn’t there.

“You have a fair point,” I grumbled, slapping his hand away from my face. “I’m just used to nicer weather, I guess.”

“Well, are you used to a nice dinner?” He asked, his lips cracking into yet another smile. “Because I guarantee, you haven’t lived until you’ve had some of the etouffee that they serve in Florida. And the shrimp are to die for.”

“Charlie Reid, are you asking me out to dinner?” I said, acting shocked and affronted, when inside I wished that he had been serious, instead of just probably suggesting something that I should try.

“I am.” All the joking manner that we had shared during the trip seemed to fade away in that moment of admission. My pulse throbbed, its pace picking up a little quicker than was usual for me.

“Oh,” I responded quietly. “Then…yes. I would love to have dinner with you.”

His face lit up when I answered him, positively beaming with radiance. “Great. I’d suggest that we go to this little place downtown…but because of the weather, we might have to settle for the hotel bar.”

“That’s fine with me.” My stomach growled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten most of the day. “I’m starving.”

“Then I’ll meet you in the hotel bar in about half an hour?” He asked.

“Sounds great.” It would give me time to get cleaned up, readjust my makeup, and get out of the clothes that I’d been sitting in on the plane.

As I unpacked in my room, I took the time to shave my legs and put on some nice undergarments. A girl always felt more confident when she had things like that at her disposal. A nice simple black dress, with just the slightest plunge of a neckline, and a set of heals rounded off my attire for the evening.

When I went down to the bar, it didn’t take me long to find Charlie sitting at a table in the corner. He’d changed from his T-shirt and khakis into a pressed button down shirt and slacks, appropriate for dinner. His eyes lit up as they met mine.

“You look beautiful,” he said, standing and holding out a chair for me.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said, pulling my dress up a little so it wouldn’t catch, and sitting down in the chair anyway. He helped me scoot it forward so that I was level with the table.

“I don’t mind. In my house, you showed manners for a lady.”

“In that case,” I said softly, staring into his beautiful blue spheres once more, “carry on”.

It was a beautiful start to a lovely dinner. As he had promised, the etouffee, which I wasn’t looking forward to trying, was delicious, despite its off-putting color, and the shrimp cocktail that he ordered was excellent. The rest of my meal went just as well, my taste buds unaccustomed to such rich and spicy flavors. The wine that Charlie ordered went perfectly with the meal, squeezing all the flavor out of every ounce of the food and brushing it against my waiting tongue.

All through the meal, what made me feel more flushed than the wine, was the way that he looked at me, or even touched me a few times. His soft hand would reach out to feed me a bite off of his fork, the barest tip of his finger grazing my lip as he did so, and sending a current of electricity running through me. Or the comfortable way he reached out and stroked the length of my bare arm, causing me to shiver unnecessarily in the middle of a heated room. I even caught him looking at me, when he thought that I wasn’t looking.

“This is amazing,” I told him, finishing my last bite of food and dusting the side of my mouth with a napkin. “But I can’t eat another bite.”

“So, no dessert?” He asked. I knew that he meant it harmlessly. That there shouldn’t have been any innuendo behind what he was saying. I told myself that I was being silly, that I was just reading more into it than what he meant. But as I looked over at him, at the hungry way that he was looking at me, his eyes canvassing my body, from the length of my neck, to the glimpse of cleavage that the dress offered, I knew that there was a layered meaning behind his words.

In that moment, I knew that I would not tell him no. The electric tension seemed to intensify between us at that moment, and my body, dormant and unyielding for so long, began to unfurl its tightly closed coils, and release sensations of desire throughout my entire being. I didn’t know the man. But I wanted him, wanted to know him on a deep, intimate level.

We hardly even waited for the waitress to bring the check before allowing ourselves the luxury to step away from the table, and back to his room.

Entering that room, with that intention in both of our hearts and bodies, made us into entirely different people. The presence of calmness and chivalry that seemed to hang around him for the entire time that I’d known him seemed to fade away as our deeper and more primal needs took over.

His lips crashed down hard on mine, controlling, desiring, hungry for more of me to submit to him. He forced my mouth open with his, and ran his probing tongue across my bottom lip, causing me to shiver in his embrace. He took that as a sign to go further, allowing his tongue to dart into my mouth, a twisting and sensual sensation that nearly drove me insane. I could feel the two things combine, creating a dance, each fighting for control over the other. Having any part of him enter me in any way, made me dizzy with desire.

The tension that had been building between us all through dinner, and the attraction that had been sizzling in the air since the very moment that I’d laid eyes on him seemed to finally be coming to a head.

He pushed me roughly against the soft fabric of the bed, causing my body to arch slightly in response. In moments he was upon me, his lips once more hunting hungrily for my mouth and body. He buried his hands in my hair, pulling me closer, as if he truly couldn’t get enough of me. Our bodies melded together as we lay together, his hands skimming my body teasingly. I could hardly breathe from the pleasure of it all. All I could feel was him. Him pressed against me, sending shivers of pleasure down my spine, and making me feel warm sensations that I hadn’t felt stirring for a very long time.

His hands became rougher with me as he helped me shed the thin clothing that separated us. The clinging black gown was peeled away from me, revealing my naked body, only covered by the thinnest scraps of material.

Then, after another moment he gathered the material underneath his large hands and gently slipped the silky thong and bra off of my body, throwing them into the corner.

In hindsight, it was a good decision to add that extra layer of seduction. I hadn’t known for sure that this is where I would end up after dinner, but if I was honest, a part of me had hoped. It was entirely wrong to want to be with someone this much, to want to be with him when I didn’t even know him, but in that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it was really wrong. His gaze upon me, the heat that stemmed from his body and latched itself onto mine, told me that this was exactly right.

I closed my eyes as his hands fondled my breasts, playing with them like they were his personal playground. He showed no shame in exploring my body, and I wanted to give him every part of me. If he wanted to examine me, to make me wait, then I would enjoy that torture gladly. Any time his hand touched me, I nearly went through the roof; whether that was an attribute to his skillful touch or the fact that I hadn’t been with someone in a long time was still debatable. Something in my subconscious hinted at the former. Even when I had been with others, no one had ever made me feel like this.

After the beginning, every one of his movements was without waste, perfectly engineered to bring us closer together in our moment of need. He stripped himself of his own clothing, baring his body to my desiring eyes. I could hardly take him all in. There was so much of him, all angles, hard muscles, and smooth skin.

His manhood protruded out proudly, standing straight at attention, and waiting for my affections.

I toyed with the hardness of his shaft, taking in the length and width of him onto my tongue. I knew the sexual aura that steamed from him had to come from the fact that he knew that this part of him was something women couldn’t resist. He knew that his equipment was more than adequate to make any women happy.

I couldn’t stand to not have him inside of me for a second longer.

He retracted from my mouth, and then pushed into my sex, with my unspoken permission. His manhood going in deep, only to pull back again, leaving me feeling desperately empty. That first push, that pressure, had been so intense that I thought I literally might shatter. Its absence created a bigger hole inside of me, one that I was desperate to have him fill. Then, mercifully, his shaft dived into my silky folds once more, both of us craving the other’s touch through a haze of desire.

His immense strength captured me time and time again, between the powerful force of his shaft, and the toned muscles in his arms, and the tightness with which he held me. I could never doubt that this was a man who knew what he was doing, knew how to perfectly pleasure a woman. I wasn’t a one night stand kind of woman, by any means, but for this man, in this moment, I could throw all of that away. I could let it all go.

My immediate and sudden attraction to him was something that thrilled and scared me. The fact that we were making love after having only known each other for a few hours, perfect strangers as it were, only added to the natural high that I was on. I didn’t care that this man, this heart-breakingly handsome man, had in one short night turned me into the kind of woman that had sex outside of a committed relationship. How could I worry about that, when throes of passion kept tugging me under, demanding my attention?

Without warning, he scooped me up, holding me even tighter against him with new position, making me sigh slightly as his shaft shifted inside of me. I watched in awe, unaware that my body could even bend so limberly, as he took my legs and spread them wide apart, my delicate ankles next to his hardened shoulders, his dark, tanned skin matching perfectly against my peaches and cream complexion.

He raised my limbs and twisted them in such a way that made me grit my teeth from the sensation. The pleasure was almost more than I could bear to have contained inside of me. Having him pounding away into my core, his shaft rubbing relentlessly against my heat soaked walls, made me feel as if I could come at any moment. I had never had sex this way before, feeling as though I were on the verge of my climax almost the entire time. It was breathtaking. There was no other word for the sensation of the two of us colliding together in this primal, seductive dance of love making.

He drew out slowly, alternating between watching me and watching his shaft enter me. The slow movement was agony to my waiting body, to my core which craved him so desperately. I could feel each throb of his member, each pull against my walls as he pushed in deeper and deeper each time. Every thrust got a little harder, a little faster, gradually building up speed and stamina once more. With each consecutive thrust, I couldn’t contain the little gasp of pleasure that left me. A forceful exhale that I could not keep in no matter how hard I tried.

Sweat began to bead on his perfect brow, his face determined and concentrated, chasing his own orgasm as thoroughly as he was satisfying my own needs. His mouth fell open slightly and his eyes closed, his body reaching the point where it needed to experience the sudden and swift moment of release. I couldn’t help but watch and enjoy myself with this man who’d become my sudden and unexpected lover. His face was more attractive than any Hollywood star, his body better than any athlete. His entire appearance was geared to operate on a level of seducing women, and I had to admit, he gave me one hell of a ride.

I finally allowed myself a release, a low, throaty moan coming out of the back of my throat as I felt my core clench, contracting with my orgasm. Again and again it happened, until my body was wracked with it, and I felt so happy from the relief of tension that had been building inside of me for far too long.

Charlie was breathing heavily next to me. I could feel the warmth of his fevered skin, hot and tight after the act of lovemaking, his heart beat pacing rapidly at first, but with every breath, slowing down. I still couldn’t bring myself to feel what I’d done was wrong. He laid next to me, his movements becoming stiller, until finally I could tell that he’d fallen asleep. I then realized that I had never felt this safe, and happy.

To be continued…

Thank you for reading!

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3 Book Romance Bundle: "Taken by the Cowgirl" & "Sex With the Lawyer" & "Loving

~ Taken By The Cowgirl ~ Libby is a small town girl who has her dream job as manager of the Dixon Ranch. She loves the country life, even though, most people in her town dream of moving away. Libby and her son are peaceful in their lives until old flames from the past resurface and threaten to shake their worlds. Follow Libby’s adventure as she must confront the past and decide if love is worth having again. ~ Sex With The Lawyer ~ Brooke Addison is a successful lawyer in her early thirties. She’s driven, ambitious and determined to prove herself in a male-dominated business. In fact, so determined to be made partner in her firm, she has spent the first ten years of her career so consumed by work that nothing else has seemed important. She’s had no social life and precious few romantic relationships. One day everything changed for Brooke, as she gets the worst news of her life. She decides it is time to take control of her life and start living in the moment. At a whim she jets off to Europe to see the sights and sounds. Unbeknownst to her the trip begins her journey of sexual self-discovery. ~ Loving Him Peacefully ~ Katherine is living her dream of working as a business executive for a large company. That is until her bosses ask her to sign her name to something legal, but very unethical. Katherine quits because her good name is worth more to her than a cushy salary. With savings to hold her over for a while, Katherine takes a leap of faith and joins the Peace Corps. On the way to her assignment, she meets a very handsome man traveling abroad as well. They have an instant connection and things quickly heat up. Katherine wants to stay focused on her task, but that is easier said than done. Follow Katherine as she embarks on the journey of her life. Will she find love, happiness, or misery, in the deepest parts of the jungle?

  • ISBN: 9781311003096
  • Author: AJW Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-23 00:05:15
  • Words: 37673
3 Book Romance Bundle: 3 Book Romance Bundle: