Eyes Turned Skyward Bonus Scene 

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I zipped my Gore-Tex jacket against the January chill as I walked up the sidewalk to the library. Sure, it was cold, but nothing compared to an East Coast winter. Hell, back in Boston, I would have been in shorts in this weather.

Maybe Alabama was making me soft.

Speaking of soft, my eyes landed on Paisley the second the door shut behind me. Her hair fell over her shoulder as she leaned across the reference desk, explaining something to a guy who was actually listening, instead of checking out her ass like I was.

Well, I was her boyfriend, and therefore entitled to admire, and she was wearing a pencil skirt. A sexy-as-hell pencil skirt. I had no defenses against her when she dressed like that.

Boyfriend. Yeah, I liked the sound of that one.

“Hey, Little Bird,” I said as I came up behind her quietly after the guy walked away.

She turned with a bright smile, lighting up her entire face. “What are you doing here?” she drawled.

“I have a few minutes for lunch, so I thought I’d drop in.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.”

“I’m glad I did, too.”

We stood there, smiling like idiots at each other.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, you two,” Alice muttered. She picked up a stack of books way too heavy for her and shoved them into my arms with a quick grin. As if she’d ever have one strand astray, she patted her silver hair back into place. “Paisley, go file those.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she laughed, pulling the top book off my pile and then led the way toward the stacks.

The library was dead today. “Where is everyone?”

She shrugged, heading toward an area I’d never been in. “It’ll pick up in a few hours.”

“Where are you taking me?” Not that I cared. I’d follow Paisley anywhere as long as she was walking in front of me.

She threw a flirty grin over her shoulder as she lead me into a small room lined with bookshelves and shut a door behind us. “To file, of course.”

A smirk flirted across my face. “You didn’t bring me to the most remote room in the library to do hot, forbidden things to my body?”

She dropped to the bottom row and filed the book, then looked up at me with mock surprise. “Jagger Bateman, we’re in public!”

I surveyed the room and put the stack of books on the empty table at the end of the row. “I’d hardly call this public.”

“I’m at work.” She came to her feet and took a step back as I advanced on her, but damn if she didn’t run that pretty pink tongue across her lips.

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” I recited, following her the few steps across the aisle until her back was against the shelves.

Her lips parted and her eyes flickered with interest. “Did you just try to use Dorian Gray to make a move?”

My left arm rested on the shelf at her eye level, where I kept her captive as my fingers skimmed down the soft skin of her arm until I clasped her tiny hand. “Did it work?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much. Which mannerly devotion shows in this, for saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” She lifted her face toward mine, whispering the last of it against my jawline.

My blood rushed south. “Shakespeare. You’re so fucking sexy when you speak librarian.” I raised her hand above her head and pressed fully against her, welcoming the torturous heaven of holding her.

“Jagger.” She sighed, her eyes flitting nervously toward the sliver of glass window in the door.

My entire body hummed, drunk on the mere possibility of tasting her. I’d kissed her dozens of times and still couldn’t get enough. “The smell of her hair.” I kissed her forehead, taking in the apple scent of her hair. “The taste of her mouth.” I spoke against her lips, running my tongue along the seam as she whimpered. The sound nearly did me in. I ran my left hand down the curve of her waist, where her sexy button-up shirt was tucked in, and then over her hips. Her silk skirt was soft in my hand as I fisted the material and pulled, raising it only enough to get my fingers on the softer, bare skin of her thigh. I knew where Paisley’s line was, and there was zero chance of me crossing it without a heartfelt invitation. “The feeling of her skin seemed to have got inside him, or into the air all ’round him.” I rocked my hips against hers and she gasped. “She had become a physical necessity.”

“Huh,” she huffed lightly against my lips, her eyes already closed as her body melted against mine.

“Orwell,” I whispered. “I win.”

I paused, waiting for her to want it, taking in the fluttering of her wrist’s pulse beneath my hand and the exquisite press of her breasts against me as her breathing accelerated. Her eyes popped open. “You win.”

Hell yes I did. I took control of her mouth just like she had control of my every fucking thought lately. Her lips parted, and I swept in, stroking my tongue against hers, rubbing with the exact friction I knew would make her moan. Just that sound gave me a raging hard-on, but when she arched against me, hooking her leg around my waist, I nearly lost the control I prided myself for.

Her tiny heel dug into the fabric of my ACU’s, and I filled my hand with her ass, lifting her fully against me. Her fingers tightened around mine, and her other hand gripped the back of my head, holding my mouth to hers as I showed her how very badly I wanted her with every nip of my teeth, every slide of my tongue.

Her skirt slid higher, and I leveraged her slight weight against the shelves, my hand dipping underneath to hold her skin to skin. Two more inches and I’d be at her center, which I knew would be wet, waiting for me, but I wasn’t going to fuck her for the first time against the shelves in the library.

Or before she told me that she loved me.

I needed the damn words more than I needed to be inside her, which felt pretty life-or-death at the moment. But I had to know she was choosing this. Choosing me.

Because I’d already chosen her, and there was no taking that back. She fucking owned me.

Paisley sucked on my lower lip, laving it with her tongue and then gently biting it as she pulled her head back. Her eyes were glazed over, her lips swollen from my kisses, and if not for that damned window, I’d have my fingers inside her, pushing her to an orgasm just so I could watch her fly apart in my arms.

But I wasn’t about to let her become the fodder for the gossip mill—the commanding general’s daughter caught screwing a flight school student in the stacks.

I kissed her lips gently once. Twice, then unwound her leg from my waist and lowered her to the ground, groaning when she rolled against my dick. “You kill me, Little Bird.”

She stole another kiss, and I let her hand go from where I’d kept her prisoner. “You have to get back to class.”

Damn. Did she have to sound so breathless? “You have to get back to work.”

She nodded slowly, like her brain wasn’t quite functioning. Good. Mine wasn’t, either. I stepped back, only to lean forward and kiss her one more time as I pulled her skirt down to cover her lickable skin. Addictive. So Addictive.

I shook my head to clear it, rearranged my dick in my pants to disguise my erection, and sighed. “You’re trouble.”

She let her head fall back against he shelves. “You quoted Orwell. I was powerless.”

One more quick kiss and I opened the door. “I’ll see you later tonight?”

“You bet. Oh, Jagger?”

“Oh, Paisley?” I turned to see the sexiest smirk resting on her lips.

“I let you win.”

My smile was instant. “I know.” Photographic memory or not, my girl was always going to be smarter than I was. It was hot as hell.

I winked at her once and walked away, scared that if I didn’t, my resolutions on waiting-like-a-woman for her to drop the L word were going to fly out the window.

I had an all-new respect for the library.

 

 


 BONUS BROWNIE BATTER SCENE — GRAYSON’S POV 51jmi194b1L

 

I jumped the last two steps to the landing, feeling lighter than I had since…hell if I even knew when. With that test over, there was finally room in my lungs to breathe, space in my head to think. Of course those thoughts immediately turned to Sam, to what was happening between us. Why I should stop it. Why I wasn’t capable.

“Fuck!” I heard her squeal at same high pitch as my KitchenAid mixer. Definitely not a good thing, knowing Sam and her lack of culinary skills. What if she had caught her damn hand in the blades?

I barreled down the last of the steps, picturing bloody, mangled fingers, and raced around the edge of the half-wall until I skidded to a stop in the kitchen.

“Are you okay?” I asked. Holy shit. Well, she warned you she was going to make a mess. There was brownie batter everywhere. On the cabinets, the backsplash, the counters—even Sam, but I didn’t see anything broken or hurt. Thank God. “You weren’t kidding about the mess.”

“Oh this?” She faked a smile. “It’s a new aeration technique. I totally meant to do this.”

As if in punctuation, some of the ill-fated mix fell off the end of her nose, and she didn’t even blink. It was cute, and for someone who didn’t have any use for that word, damn if I wasn’t enamored of her and the chocolate that was splattered all over her warm skin. Hell, I wanted to trade places with it.

That need overrode everything in my brain—my logic, our friendship-only agreement, even the promises Sam knew nothing about. Everything.

“Is that so?” I asked, leaving a piece of my resolve behind with every step I took toward her. She was all I saw, all I wanted. And that want was fucking killing me. I ran my finger along her soft cheek, catching the brownie mix, and then lifted it to my mouth, wishing it was Sam I was tasting instead of the chocolate. “Hmm… I think there’s something to be said for this method. Maybe a little more air in the batter?”

Her mouth dropped. “Are you making fun of me?”

My lips quirked upward, and I ran my tongue over my bottom lip, catching the last of the chocolate there. Her attention locked onto my mouth, her breath catching in a soft gasp. Damn. That sound brought to mind a thousand different things I could do to hear it again.

For once, I had her off-guard, this woman who kept me constantly on edge, teetering between exasperation and primal need.

Slowly, I lowered my mouth to the skin just beneath her ear. “Maybe another taste to be sure?” I asked, then finally allowed my lips to run the path along her jawline. She tasted like sin and chocolate—smelled like vanilla and heaven. “Mmm. Definitely more.”

A tremor raced through her, and it took every single ounce of my willpower not to press her into the counter and kiss her, to finally feel her body cradle mine. Instead, I reached behind her and flicked the lever on the mixer, sending chocolate catapulting through the air.

“You did not!” she shrieked and tried to escape by dropping to the floor.

“I most certainly did!” I caught her in my arms and picked her up, using her as a shield from the barrage of chocolate coming at me. “Man, you’re slippery.” I let her dip just enough to tease, but caught her where her tiny shorts caressed the skin of those legs I’d been fantasizing about since I caught her standing on this kitchen counter.

She squawked and then squeezed those thighs around my waist, her arms around my neck. I turned off the mixer and laughed softly, reveling in the ability to do so. Sam wasn’t just sexy, or frustrating, or smart…she was fun.

“You can laugh?” she questioned, locking those green eyes on mine.

“I have been known to on occasion,” I said. Just not very much in the last five years.

“I like it,” she whispered.

Her thighs flexed, like I needed a reminder that her body was flush against mine… Hell, around mine. My fingers bit gently into the delicate skin of her thighs as I fought for control with every. Single. Breath. Want—no—need slammed into me, and I found myself staring at the plush curves of her lips, watching them part…like she was waiting for my kiss.

“I do, too,” I admitted softly.

Don’t! Stop! My logical side begged.

Don’t stop, my body—my soul—fought back…and won. I lowered my lips to hers, so fucking sick of the war in my head. I was powerless to fight this pull between Sam and I, not when it was stronger than gravity.

Just before our lips could meet, Sam put her finger over mine. “Wait. Don’t you think—”

I shifted her slight weight, balancing her with one of my hands and using the other to gently pull her fingers away. Didn’t she understand? All I did was think, analyze, guard…until she was near. “That’s the problem. When you’re near, I don’t think. I can’t.” I drew her finger into my mouth and licked the chocolate from the tiny digit, and then did the same with her pointer finger, savoring her indrawn breath, the instinctual roll of her hips that had me nearly groaning. She wanted me to think? No. “I’m so damn tired of trying to.”

No more fighting this, not when every cell in my body was screaming for her.

My hand slid to the back of her neck, and I kissed her. I meant to take it slow, but she opened to me, and I was lost. My tongue found hers, stroking, tangling, caressing, and her taste was addictive, just like those tiny moans in the back of her throat.

I answered with a low growl, my fingers in her hair, desperate to clutch, to grab, to make sure this moment was happening—that she was real. My dick hardened, all too willing to remind me of just how real she was. There was no way to get enough of her, not with the abandonment with which she kissed me back, the feel of her hands on my neck, pulling me closer, the torture of her breasts as she arched against me.

She. Was. Perfection.

I needed more. She was the feast during the famine, oxygen while drowning, everything that was essential to my very survival, and I consumed her with the same desperation of a condemned man’s whispered prayer for salvation.

I may have been unredeemable, but in her arms I found a heaven I wasn’t entitled to. I took it anyway.

My ass found the dining room chair, and her legs untangled from my waist, only to push against the rails so she could rock against me. Fuuuck. I wanted to strip her down, to touch and explore her body with my hands and mouth. Need pounded through my veins, erasing everything but the incredible woman in my arms.

How had I kept myself away from her for this long?

She ripped her mouth away from mine, whispering, “Grayson,” as we both struggled to pull air into our lungs.

I knew what she wanted—to think. To assess. To question what this meant, but I couldn’t. Not yet. Not with her taste on my tongue and her phenomenal ass filling my hands.

I vaguely remembered that I shouldn’t be touching her, kissing her. I didn’t deserve even this moment of respite, the haven she gave me with a simple touch, but I couldn’t give it up. Couldn’t think of the one reason I should. Couldn’t question why that reason wasn’t stopping me for the first time since…ever. Sam stole every thought with a single, vulnerable glance.

There was only Samantha. There was only my need. There was only one thing to say. “More.”

 

Still need to meet Grayson? Check out BEYOND WHAT IS GIVEN!


BONUS CABIN SCENE – FULL MEASURES (JOSH POV)51frVfs2BrHL

“Well, since we have all night . . .” Ember wiggled up onto the kitchen counter and opened the cabinet on top of the refrigerator. I was definitely not thinking about her ass. Only an asshole would be thinking about her ass after all she’d been through tonight.

Well, mark me down as the asshole.

“Tequila?” she suggested.

I smiled, thinking of how cute she’d probably be once she was drunk. But hey, if that’s how she wanted to process this, I’d help her. I buzzed my hand over my hair, a nervous habit I couldn’t quite shake.

“Are you okay?” she asked as she set the bottle down and gently took my hand.

I assessed the damage  and shrugged. “Knuckles are swollen, but that’s not my blood.” No, it was his, and if she hadn’t been there watching, I’d have a ton more of it on me. But I couldn’t destroy him the way I’d wanted to, not with her there. I wasn’t going to show her the type of person I was capable of being…at least not that side. No, I’d left that guy in the CSH in Kandahar. I just couldn’t tell her that.

She led me to the sink and rinsed Riley’s blood off my hand. She was close enough to smell her shampoo. Apples?

“Ice?” she asked, breaking me out of my thoughts.

“No, I’m fine, really.”

She skimmed the tips of her fingers over the abrasions, and I clenched my stomach muscles, fighting back the urge to see how soft her skin was. She looked up at me, and the blue of her eyes lured me in to where I couldn’t tell where we separated. Right. Think about her eyes. Then she dragged her tongue across her bottom lip, and my gaze locked onto the movement. Holy shit. Does she have any clue how fucking hot she is? Probably not. The good ones never do.

“In that case, grab the limes out of my bag, because I need to get drunk,” she said. What? Oh, right. She was back to talking about tequila.

“As the lady wishes.”

I slid a knife out of the wooden block and made quick work of sectioning off the lime. I watched her lick the salt from the web of her hand, toss back the shot, and suck the lime like a champ. No sour face or anything. Damn. I joined her, tossing back three shots, well within my limits. I wasn’t so sure about hers. Ember’s cheeks flushed pink and her eyes softened a few minutes after that last shot. “Feeling better?”

“I’m not really sure there’s an option of feeling worse.” She shoved a handful of chips into her mouth, and I could tell she wasn’t drunk, but not sober, either. “I’m done dwelling on things. Distract me.”

“How?” There was a special seat for me with the options that rolled through my head.

“Tell me what happened to badass Josh Walker from high school. I remember you having hair down to your chin—”

“Hockey.” It was partly true. Partly not.

“And that black motorcycle…”

“In storage.” Because I couldn’t get another speeding ticket without it fucking up my insurance.

“Why? More illegal fun that’s not up for discussion?”

Nope. It wasn’t. I shut the door on that shit a lifetime ago. “That was six years ago, December. Besides, would you drive a motorcycle in the middle of a Colorado winter?” I closed up the chips, keeping my hands busy. That motorcycle was the only tangible part of that life I kept.

“Good point,” she agreed. Her head cocked to the side like she was trying to figure something out. “You’re so different now.”

My hands gripped the counter behind me. Could she tell? Could she see how that war had damaged more than tissue? “How so?” I poured another shot.

Her eyes closed like she was remembering. “You were popular, a good athlete, and had this whole bad-boy, don’t-give-a-shit vibe going for you and all, but I’m sorry, you were kind of an ass.”

Half of the tequila sprayed out of my mouth. I laughed in sheer disbelief. “Good to know.”

“I mean, normally, you were this really hot guy, of course.” Her gaze locked onto mine, and I was fascinated, seeing myself through someone else’s eyes, especially Ember’s. “But during hockey season, you were more than that. You were a god. Every girl wanted to be yours, and you…let them. You didn’t seem to care that you changed them out faster than your hockey tape. You. Were. An. Ass.”

I cleaned the rest of the tequila off my lip with my tongue, and damned if she didn’t watch with a look that said she’d take over the job. “And now what’s your verdict?” For a split second, my breath hung in limbo, waiting for her answer. Was she going to look past the shit I’d done as a high school boy to see the man I was now?

“Jury’s still out.”

“That’s fair.” I rubbed my hand across my forehead like I could pull those memories out. “I transferred into Cheyenne my sophomore year, and it was rough.” Hell yes, it was. Those kids had been the most judgmental group of snots I’d ever been around. If it hadn’t been for the academics, Mom never would have made me go there. If it hadn’t been for hockey, I’d have left despite the “stellar” rating of that snobfest. “Hockey gave me an in to the crowd, but it’s not like there weren’t tons of rumors about why I transferred in the first place. Funny how the shit you pull in high school sticks with you if you don’t move away, huh?”

Rumors I’d earned in the back of too many cop cars in Winslow, Arizona. Speed limits were something they took seriously down there, and racing didn’t exactly earn me a lot of friends in blue.

“Depends. You still sleep with everything in a skirt?” Her voice was mocking, but I knew she wasn’t kidding, not down where it mattered.

I grabbed at my heart like I didn’t catch on. “Out for blood tonight, are we?”

“Truth hurts.”

I waggled my eyebrows. “Hey, I’d totally make an exception for a girl in Daisy Duck pajama pants.” The thing was, she wasn’t an exception. She was the exception. Fuck. I was in deeper than I had any right to be. There was infatuation, and then there was whatever this was.

She looked me over, but not in a sexual way. More like an animal caught in some kind of trap, ready to gnaw her own arm off. “Shot?”

Again? This girl was going to end up wasted if she didn’t slow down. “You sure?”

Oh, but she was sure. She threw back that next shot of tequila, and I envied the glass against her mouth, which definitely didn’t belong to a high school freshman anymore. She’d always been pretty, but now she was…undefinable, a step beyond gorgeous to almost ethereal.        I put the empty shot glass down. I had to be sober to deal with whatever was going through her head. I needed to be sober to deal with my head, too. Being this close to her was intoxicating enough. I’d never allowed myself any proximity to her in high school. She’d been quiet, kind, and smart, and I would have only ruined her like I did every other girl I went through. Just thinking about it brought me right back there, five years ago.

The hum of the motor drowned out the shrieks of the girl pressed against my back as we sped around the corner of the parking lot. Karla? No. Kaitlyn. Maybe. All the blondes at this school started to blur together after the first month. I parked my bike in the senior parking lot and killed the engine.

        Kaitlyn smacked my shoulder as she climbed off the back, a flurry of short skirt and tan thighs. “Were you trying to kill me?” She ripped the extra helmet off her head.

        I shrugged my shoulders, tucking my helmet under my arm. “Trust me, I’ve gone faster. Besides, you said you wanted a thrill, right? Was our little lunch break not thrilling enough for you, Kaitlyn?” She’d been screaming my name, so I couldn’t imagine why there’d be a reason for complaint.

        She turned as maroon as her letterman’s jacket and threw the helmet at my chest. “It’s Kelly, you asshole.”

        Shit. I flashed my damage-control smile. “I’m so sorry, I was just distracted by how pretty you are, and it slipped out. Of course you’re Kelly.” My hands found her curved hips, and I pulled her in for a kiss.

        She melted right into me and sighed as I backed away a moment later. “It’s okay. We do kind of look alike. I have to get to class. I’ll forgive you if you call me.”

        “Sure thing,” I lied. A coy smile later, she was gone, and I could breathe. We hadn’t even been going that fast. I’d kill for a race, a real one, where the adrenaline spiked and everything but the bike faded away. I missed the wins, but not as much as I missed Winslow. That was the deal Mom struck with the local sheriff. Turned out the cops didn’t really appreciate me putting together street races, as entertaining as they were to the underage public in our very tiny town. I didn’t get charged with six counts of reckless driving or the federal charges that came with my fifty-plus-over-the-limit speeding violations, but she had to take me out of the county. I’d only had my license three months, and she moved us all the way to Colorado where my long hair was one of many attributes that marked me an outsider. Mom didn’t half-ass anything.

        Once the helmets were stored in my saddlebags, I headed toward the auditorium. The bell announced that I was tardy for sixth period, but I knew Mr. Andrusyk wouldn’t care.

The October wind picked up as I reached the door handle, blowing my hair across my mouth. I pushed it back and walked inside the lobby of the auditorium.

One of the freshmen presented their project in a shaky voice from the stage, so I bypassed the main door and snuck in the side. Applause sounded as I spotted Mr. Andrusyk in the center of the auditorium. I worked my way down to him as another student took the stage.

“December Howard!” he called out. “You’re up!”

I stopped midstride, my eyes glued to the slight figure headed toward the microphone. December Howard. She was dressed conservatively as usual, all legs like a baby deer and no curves to speak of—the opposite of the D cups I’d had my hands on an hour ago, but she had these giant blue eyes that cut through the bullshit that thrived around here. A transfer student, too, she was the only girl in this school who intrigued me, and the only girl I stayed far the hell away from. After all, she was a freshman, practically a baby, where I’d be old enough to vote in a few weeks.

“It’s Ember,” she corrected softly, lowering the mic to her height. She cleared her throat. “I’ll b-b-be presenting my debate outline on the importance of school uniforms,” she began. Her hands shook on her notecards. A few of the kids snickered, and I squeezed the back of a chair to keep from squeezing their mouths shut. Fucking little assholes.

“C-c-can you start?” one of the guys called out a few rows ahead, laughing.

It was one of the freshmen on our hockey team, and I smiled, knowing he’d be skating sprints all fucking night tonight for that one. Being captain had its privileges. “Shut your mouth, Jones,” I warned him, which earned me an I-might-shit-my-pants, wide-eyed stare when the kid saw it was me, and rolled eyes with a thumbs up from Mr. A several seats away.

December squinted in my direction, but I knew with the light, I was a row or two out of eyesight.

“Come on,” I whispered, like she could hear me. Like my opinion mattered. “You’ve got this.”

She bit her lip, tucked a long strand of wavy, red hair behind her ear and took a deep breath. Then she raised her eyes, leveled the group of asshats with one very superior arched eyebrow, and started presenting like her first sentence hadn’t even happened. I sat right where I was, uncaring that I hadn’t gotten my work from Mr. A yet, and listened to her speak, entranced. She was smart, and had this quiet, inner strength that made me stare a little longer. She was as unique as her name, a bright flash of color in an otherwise earth-toned student body, and she’d captivated me since the first week of school.

I’d caught her stopping to help another girl clean the lipsticked word “slut” off her locker. The other girl had been huddled in on herself, crying as she tried to open her combination lock. Before I could even get across the hallway, December had pushed through the gawking crowd, pulled cleaning wipes out of her purse—who the hell kept cleaning wipes in their purse?—and went to work scrubbing the red mess off the metal.

The look she’d just given during her presentation today was the same she’d aimed at the semicircle of rabid freshmen then, saying, “How would you feel if it was your locker?” Boom. I was sunk, admiring a damn freshman I’d never given a second glance to before.

Finding her in the class I kept grades for? A torturous perk, since I stayed  far enough away that she never saw me. A girl like that needed nothing to do with me. She needed someone her own age, who wasn’t as jaded, as experienced, or as likely to fuck her over. Not to mention someone who could teach her how to kiss without worrying that cops would come after him for violating state laws. I’d never been one to keep my hands to myself.

She finished up her presentation, and amid the applause, one of the blond Ken dolls called out, “Way to go, Ember!”

        She smiled shyly at him, and an ache pulsed in my chest. What the hell was wrong with me? I did not get jealous, ever, because that implied caring beyond finding out the color of some girl’s underwear. But just because I didn’t want to know the color of her panties didn’t mean I wanted Frankie-freshman to know, either.

        I rubbed my fingers over my forehead. Get it together, or you’ll act on it. And if you act on it, she won’t be so shiny anymore because you’ll ruin her. You’ll kill her spark and turn her into another Abercrombie Barbie.

        “Walker!” Kyle Bilton, another senior, whispered from the aisle next to me, and I jumped.

        “What?” I snapped.

        “Dude, you’d better get up to the parking lot. Kaitlyn Rivera is pissed.”

        “Kaitlyn?” Which one was Kaitlyn?

        “Yeah, something to do with her twin, Kelly?”

        “Twins?” Shit.

        “You’d better run, she’s beating the shit out of your bike.”

        I looked one last time over at December, and then broke into a run toward the parking lot. Yeah, she needed someone like me like a hole in her head. But with her vibrancy, her honesty and that spark she had, well…damn if I didn’t need to be near her, just to see if some of that would rub off on me.

“I remember you, too, you know,” I said. “You were cute back then. Your hair was curlier and a little wild, like you were untamed, unbeaten. You were quiet and never looked up when I passed you in the hallway, but I saw you, knew who you were. There was something about you, a fire that was untouchable.”

“That fire is dead.” The defeat in her voice ripped through me, and hurt a hell of a lot worse than taking a check, or even bullets.

I pushed back my anger at her douche-bag ex, and closed the distance between us, standing in the middle of her outstretched knees. God, how could she even think that about herself? I raised her chin, needing to see those blue eyes of hers, and it happened again: electricity sparked, linking us, damn-near bringing me to my knees. “The fire you have within you is impossible to kill. The first breath you take when you’re free of all this, it will come roaring back. That’s what is so impossibly beautiful about you.”

“Riley didn’t think so. I asked him over and over again to touch me, and he would say there was zero point starting if he couldn’t finish. But he was the one who didn’t want me; I wasn’t beautiful enough for him.” Her voice broke, and a tear traced down her cheek. I caught it with my thumb, and wished I’d hit the bastard harder. The problem was him, but I wasn’t sure I could make her see that. “What is wrong with me?” Her voice was a whisper, but it hit me like a gale-force wind.

I shook my head and cupped her face while I gauged my self-control. This was the last thing I should do, but damned if the need wouldn’t go away, this clawing, desperate need to get my mouth on her, to kiss away every insecurity she had. Her breath jumped as I stroked my thumb across her lower lip, unable to help myself, and the sound sent a rush of feeling to where I didn’t need it to be. “Not a damn thing.”

“Then why would he sleep with her, but not touch me?”

“Because he’s a fucking moron.” Warning sirens blared through my head, telling me this was the most fucked-up thing I could do to her, even if it was for her. But I wanted this so damn badly, and she needed it, too, to feel how perfect she really was. And that mouth… Her lips parted, and I was sunk. “You are the sexiest girl I’ve ever seen. Always have been.”

Then I crossed the line I’d walked since the grocery store.

I kissed her how I’d fantasized since I was seventeen, melded my mouth to hers as if there was nothing that could move me—probably because nothing could. I tasted the tequila we’d shared, and my tongue slipped inside her mouth like I was always meant to be there.

One taste was all it took to get addicted to December Howard.

I took control of her mouth, stroking my tongue against hers, telling her without words how desirable she was, if she couldn’t already feel that proof pushing against her. Fuck. I had to stop. This could get out of control real fast, and that wasn’t anything she needed.

Then she moaned into my mouth and every thought of stopping evaporated.

Her hands skimmed my back as she leaned into me, pushing her tongue into my mouth. Oh sweet hell, yes. Kissing December was second only to being kissed by December. I let her have control until mine snapped, and my hands couldn’t stay put on her face.

I slid them down the curve of her back until I reached the perfection of her ass. I lifted her just enough to get my hands on her. God, she fit flawlessly. I brought her flush against me, needing to feel her softness pressed into me, even if only for this once.

She broke our kiss, leaning back. Yes, I needed to stop this, to get it under control. She wasn’t thinking straight, which meant I had to do that for both of us.

Her fingers skimmed the muscles of my abs, and she had my shirt over my head before I realized what she intended. She looked me over like I was dessert, and a surge of gratitude came over me, choking my throat with any sound I could have made, blown away that she thought I was worthy of her. She traced the lines of my tattoo until her hands were just inside my jeans, against my skin, and she tugged me toward her. Then lust, hot and hard, overpowered any logical thought.

“You…you’re amazing.” Her breathless declaration made me feel like a superhero, like I could pick up my Jeep and move it at her whim.

Smiling, I whispered her name against her mouth. She was really here, mine for however long she chose. Then I sank my hands into her auburn mass of silk that fascinated me. It came loose enough for me to wind my fingers through it, and I imagined how it would feel against my bare stomach. No. Stick to kisses, you horny jerk.

I kissed her, again and again, nearly losing my mind when she wrapped her legs around my waist. It would be so damn easy… I stopped there and concentrated on the feel of her mouth, the slide of her tongue, her taste that I knew I’d crave the minute the kiss ended. Her hands were tentative, but growing bolder as she slid them across my bare skin, bringing every nerve ending to life.

A husky laugh rumbled through me when she took control, drawing my head to the side and licking her way up my neck. Damn. If she kept this up I’d have her naked on the counter before she had a chance to think it through. That sure as hell wasn’t what she needed.

I turned her own move on her, using her hair to give me leverage. The skin of her neck tasted like apples. I liked apples. I pulled at the sleeves of her sweater, and she damn-near ripped through the thing to get it off. Her hands bit into my waist, grounding me as I savored every inch of skin from her neck to her wrist. My hands moved without instruction, running up the tops of her thighs, trying to fill the aching need in the pit of my stomach to know every curve and crevice of her body. But not there… If I touched her where I was dying to, well, there’d be no stopping.

I found the lace of her tank top in my hands, and took a deep breath so I didn’t shred it. A second was all I needed to gauge her reaction, and she willingly gave it, lifting her arms above her head. Holy shit. She wanted this. Time seemed infinite as I slid it up her body, revealing flawless, ivory skin underneath. I tried to remember everything, from the rising swells of her breasts to the texture of her lips as the lace passed over them. I captured her hands with my own, leaving the lace just over her eyes, where I could live in this one moment. I knew it would never happen again.

I was her bad decision, and for the night, I was all too willing to be it.

I kissed her because I was powerless not to, falling back to her like a victim of gravity. Victim of my poor decision making was more like it. But I couldn’t stop. I should have. But fuck, I had my mouth on December Howard and I wasn’t giving that up. I kissed her hard, slow, and every way I could imagine, burning the memory into my soul.

A simple tug, and her tank top was gone.

We couldn’t catch our breaths, both staring at each other, trying to measure the other’s desire. Mine could have burned the house down, which meant now was the time to stop.

Before I could tell her this was too far, that she’d regret it, she had her hands in my hair, pulling me to her, and I forgot whatever my reasons were for protesting. Her bra came off easily, and a heartbeat later, her exquisite breasts were in my hands. My mouth went dry, and all I could think about was getting those pretty, pink nipples into my mouth. I kissed my way down her neck, attuned to her every gasp, her breathy moans, as I sucked her into my mouth. She felt incredible in my hands, against my tongue, and if she whimpered like that one more time, I was going to explode in my fucking pants like a fifteen-year-old.

She lifted her face for a kiss, and I gave it to her, clinging to her lips as long as I could before I rested my forehead against hers, gasping for air. “God, Ember.”

“More.”

Shit, the woman was going to break me into a million pieces. I put a few inches between us, it was all I could bear, and it wasn’t nearly far enough away. Her blue eyes cut right through me. I couldn’t do this to her. She was confused, heartbroken, and wounded. I wasn’t going to take advantage of her that way. “This isn’t what you want.”

She stroked her fingers down my chest, fraying the control I was desperately clinging to. “Yes, it is. Please don’t stop.”

I closed my eyes, blocking her out the only way I knew how, trying to ignore that she’d just asked me to keep my hands on her. The girl I’d fantasized about for years was half naked, wanting me, and I was seriously considering saying yes. I really was an asshole. I let my hands memorize her curves as I slipped them down the side of her body, and then I let go, gripping the counter so I didn’t grip her.

“Please, Josh,” she begged.

“You don’t know what you’re asking.” I dropped my head, begging my own willpower to stay long enough to get the hell away.

“I’m a virgin, not a moron.” I would have laughed if my body hadn’t been drawn so tight that I was afraid I’d snap. Every muscle in my body hurt, locked with tension, and I hadn’t missed the way she shifted in her seat. She was primed, hot and ready, and I was an idiot for holding out. Or a saint. I hadn’t figured out which. “Josh, please?” she whispered, but it may as well have been on a bullhorn the way it echoed through the darkest corners of my soul.

I wanted her. I wanted more than her body. I wanted her smart mouth, her kind eyes, the touch that already pushed me close to the edge. I wanted her heart, and not just to be the first man inside her body, but the only man allowed to hear her scream out in release. I could do that, right? I wasn’t some high school boy. I had enough control to give her exactly what she needed, craved, without crossing the line she’d inevitably regret.

I just needed…a minute.

“Please put your hands on me?”

Oh, damn. There was no denying a plea like that. A guttural sound ripped free of me, and her eyes were the only thing I saw before I dove for her mouth, crushing her to me in a kiss so deep I left a part of my soul with her. I lifted her against me easily; she was so light. Her breasts crushed against my chest, and I considered staying right there in the kitchen, but I wanted her in a bed. I couldn’t break our kiss, there was nothing that could force me from the haven of her mouth once I’d given myself the “okay” to do this. For her. For you, you arrogant, selfish fuck.

“Which one is yours?” I muttered against her swollen lips.

“Second on the left.”

She slipped her tongue into my mouth, and I sucked on it, greedy for any part of her I could have. We passed the first door and entered the second. I didn’t bother to look around, not when I saw the only thing I cared about—her bed. I lowered her as gently as I could and slid my body against hers. Holy shit. I had December under me. My inner seventeen year-old was fist-pumping, but cold tendrils of fear wrapped around my throat that I would screw this up.

This had to be exquisite for her. I worshipped her breasts, and caressed every sensitive line of her body, careful to measure each of her reactions. I was so hard it fucking hurt, and my jeans threatened to cut off circulation to my favorite appendage, but it didn’t matter.

No, the only thing that mattered was her, the way her body rocked against me, silently begging for what she’d never had. She fisted her hands in the comforter, whipping her head because she was so on fire that she was almost agitated. God, she was beautiful, lost in the passion between us. Did she understand how rare this was? This incredible chemistry? I’d never felt it before, the draw so potent that I was drunk on only her.

I ran my tongue across her nipple, flicking it. Her hips arched in my hands, desperate for release.

“Josh—”

“I know.” I gathered the fabric of her pants in my hands and pulled them down her mile-long legs. They were going to feel incredible wrapped around my hips. Don’t think like that. Not now. A deep breath later, I slid my hands up her calves to her toned, supple thighs. My mouth watered with the craving to taste her, to run my tongue under the line of her panties until she screamed against my mouth.

I glided back up over her, gritting my teeth against the shocks of lust that started where her skin collided with mine and raced through me, pooling in my dick. Down, dude. This isn’t about you. Then again, telling myself not to get turned on when I had Ember under me, moaning and writhing, was the most pointless thing I’d ever attempted.

I kissed her, stroking my tongue against hers, catching every gasp she let slip. Her skin felt as smooth as ice and as hot as fire as I ran my hands down her body and under her panties. She bucked her hips in my hands, and I couldn’t contain the moan that escaped through my lips. She was so fucking hot. Perfect. Responsive. Everything I’d ever wanted, and nothing I was good enough to have. But we could have this.

I slipped my fingers along her slit, and pressed in to where she was wet, ready for me. I meant to say she was exquisite, but it came out a little differently. “Fuck. Ember.”

I stroked her clit, and she groaned, her nails biting into the skin of my shoulder. God, I wanted her to leave a mark, something I could see in the morning. I teased and caressed, using every instinct and ounce of experience I had until I knew she needed more. Hell, I needed more. Needed to be inside her, pushing into her, burying myself so deep she’d always feel me there.

But what if she didn’t really want me? Her eyes were closed. What if she didn’t realize that I was the one doing this to her, setting her on fire? What if she was pretending I was that asshat ex of hers? Did it matter, if this was what she needed?

Her hips lifted against me, and I slipped my finger inside her. Holy shit, could she be any more perfect? “Josh.” Her whisper broke me and rebuilt me in one breath. She ground her hips against my hand, and I added another finger, giving her what she craved. “You’re so damn tight. Perfect.”

I made love to her with my fingers, watching the beauty of her body spiraling tighter and tighter, her muscles tensing. I’d never seen anything as beautiful as Ember on fire. I ran my cheek along hers and rested my head there. Her nails dug into my skin again, and her hips pumped against my hand, seeking her release that was so close.

“Josh, please—”

I kissed her cheek, breathing in her aroused scent. Then I gently pressured her clit with my thumb, tweaked her nipple, and watched her explode. This was better than any orgasm I’d ever had. I’d never been so wrapped up in someone else’s pleasure before. I helped her ride it out, keeping her spinning as long as I could before she came down from the high.

“Holy shit, Josh.” She whispered in awe and kissed me. “I’ve never—that was—I don’t—”

I couldn’t help the primal smile that danced its way onto my face. “Yeah.”

She reached for my zipper, and I blocked her hand, lifting it for a kiss instead. If she touched me now, her virginity would be a distant memory. God, just the thought of it had me on a razor’s edge between heart-stopping pleasure and acute agony. “Ember.”

“What’s wrong?”

I stopped her other questing hand. If the girl knew how close she had me to breaking down, she would have run. “We’re not doing that tonight.” Holy shit, I should have qualified for some kind of medal for getting that one out.

“You don’t want me?” she nearly squeaked.

Oh no. I was not about to let her think that, not after what she’d been through tonight. I pressed a kiss to her fingers and moved my weight enough for her to feel how hard I was for her. Only her. “Trust me, I want you. I want you more than oxygen at this point.”

“Then what’s wrong?” She rested her thigh over mine.

“Fuck, could you make this any harder?” I growled, my control a hair’s breadth from snapping.

“That’s the plan, right?” The woman had the nerve to giggle, which only made me want her more. A girl you could have sex with was great, but a girl who could giggle with you in bed? You kept that one.

I disengaged from her, needing the space, and then I spooned against her, keeping my dick as far from her ass as the position would allow. “I want this; I want you, Ember. But tonight is about you, not us. You needed this, and I’m fucking ecstatic to give it to you, but we’re not doing this.” I pushed against her, biting my lip when she moaned. “Until it’s about us, and no one else.”

She didn’t respond. I didn’t expect her to, not with what she’d been through this last month, but it still hurt.

I dragged the covers over us, and damn if the woman wouldn’t be deterred. Ember slipped her hand around my back and into my jeans, cupping my bare ass under my boxers. I laughed at the utter ridiculousness of this. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d told a gorgeous girl, “no,” and yet I was holding myself back from the girl I wanted above all others. I’d gone insane. I tugged her hand free and wrapped her back in my arms. “Stop trying to take advantage of my virtue.”

She smiled and was asleep before I counted to ten. It took way longer for my body to calm down.

I untangled from her, quietly getting out of bed to secure the house. I locked the doors, turned off lights, checked the windows to keep her safe, and didn’t pause at the giant family portrait. There was no way Doc Howard would have approved of what I just did to his little girl.

The thought didn’t sit well with me as I climbed back into bed, bringing her back flush against me.

She needed better than what she’d gotten. She deserved someone who would be there for her, no matter what. Someone who could be available whenever she needed him, and not just when it was convenient. Someone who could take care of her in the moments she didn’t realize she needed care.

Maybe I couldn’t be the one she spent the rest of her life with, not with my past, and the uniform that owned my future. She’d never let me close if she knew. But I could take care of her now, be whatever she needed. It wasn’t like I could walk away from her now, anyway. Our lives were intertwined in ways she didn’t even know, yet.

And besides, one night, one taste of December and I was fucking ruined for anyone else. I was hers, whether or not she wanted me.