NEVER SAY NEVER
West Coast Happily-Ever-After, Book 2
FIRST KISS © Loner Llama Press
“Why is it so important to be number one?”
He shrugged. “No doubt Dr. Freud would say it’s wrapped up in my dad dying. People have told me he might have won Best All-Around Cowboy the year he died. My folks were on their way home from a rodeo when their truck rolled and went into a ditch.”
In an effort to brush away the sadness in her eyes, he said, “Or, as your mother liked to say, it could be cussed orneriness. She said I inherited that from my grandfather. Bull riding is what I do.”
“Even if it kills you?”
Will startled. Did she know about his doctor’s report? He knew rumors had been circulating when he left, but surely Anne couldn’t have heard anything. “What’s that mean?”
“You’re getting older. Your body isn’t as malleable as a young kid’s. You could land wrong and break your neck.”
He released the breath he’d been holding. “Actually, I may not look it, but I’m in better shape today than I was fifteen years ago. I lift weights and run. And my timing is sharper.”
She took a deep breath. “I wasn’t casting any aspersions on your body.” The compliment seemed to loom between them and she quickly added, “So, you’re planning on going back to the circuit this fall.” It wasn’t a question.
She rose to her knees and started to gather up their mess. “And, I’m taking a new job, too–a promotion that’s long overdue. It sounds like we have our futures all lined up and ready to go. To get involved on an emotional level would be terribly foolish, don’t you agree?”
“When you put it like that…but–“
She didn’t let him finish. “We’re adults, Will, not kids. Proximity and unresolved lust just aren’t good enough reasons to risk involvement.”
Will agreed on an intellectual level, but the shimmer on her lips was speaking to him at a different level altogether. “So, we won’t get involved, but one kiss every fifteen years isn’t going to kill us.”
She started to disagree, but Will knew a proven way to distract a woman. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Anne gave a token resistance–a mumbled uh-uh that almost immediately turned to uh-huh. There was a small clattering sound as the colored pens scattered on the floor. Her arms encircled his shoulders, her body flattened against his as her mouth opened.
She tasted salty and sweet. Popcorn and soda, plus an intangible quality that made him groan. And as their tongues met, Will knew he’d made a serious mistake. Fifteen years hadn’t been enough to make him forget, and now, he had nowhere to run.
Radio DJ Dylan Morgan enjoys small town life in Marietta. Unlike his longtime girlfriend and globetrotting photojournalist Casey Michaels, he’s never been tempted to spread his wings. Until an east coast job offer at a major radio station catches his eye. He considers taking the position, but then Casey calls… She’s coming home.
After years of wandering the globe, Casey Michaels is tired and needs a break and while she didn’t plan on coming home for good, the idea is starting to grow on her. All she wants to do is spend time with her forever boyfriend, Dylan. But all she meets is suspicion as everyone waits for her to pack up her suitcase once again. To convince Dylan she’s home for good, she plans a grand gesture–a photography show celebrating Marietta life. And then, the phone rings. She’s needed in London…
Everything should have been perfect.
And yet, it wasn’t.
He broke the silence between them. “Don’t you think it’s time to tell me what happened?”
Casey didn’t move, yet her body stiffened at his words. He refused to release his hold, not ready to have her pull away from him.
From the moment she’d walked through his door, she’d been a little off. Her smile too bright, her gestures too forced, her laughter too fake. He’d watched as she barely touched her steak, played with the food on her plate, pushing it around until it was a big ole’ mesh of potatoes and fixings.
He filled her in on things that had been going on around Marietta, sharing stories in order to hear her laughter, and then asked her about Nepal.
Dylan couldn’t wait to see the photos she’d taken, to hear her stories of the life she’d lived while there. He loved how excited she became, the way her eyes lit up, how her body came alive as she shared everything with him.
Except, she’d brought no photos this time. She’d lost her phone and hadn’t bothered to bring her computer, saying she wanted to focus on only him for the night.
Any other time, he’d be a happy man.
But…for some reason, this didn’t seem like any other time. This time was different.
She was different.
Maybe they were different.
Regardless, something was wrong. Something had happened. Something she’d been keeping from him, and that wasn’t okay with him.
Casey looked up and shook her head at his question.
“Not tonight. Is that okay? I’d rather just sit here and just…be…then bring all that up right now.” Her voice was quiet, full of sadness and heartache.
“How can I make it better?” He wanted to take her pain away, to replace that sad smile with one full of life and love.
Right now, in this moment, if she were to tell him she was home to stay, that she realized it was time to put them first, he’d be the happiest man in the world.
It was what he decided to focus on.
Tomorrow was another day.
She stared at him before reaching up and gently cupping his cheek with the palm of her hand.
“Just kiss me.” The words flowed off her lips and into his soul.
When his lips touched hers, it was as if time stood still just for them. A personal birthday gift from the universe.
He welcomed her home with his kiss. Told her how much he missed her, loved her, worried about her as he breathed her in.
This was where she belonged, with him, and he told her that and more as his lips moved over hers with tenderness and need.
Until she pulled away.
Dylan searched her face, noticing the tears that trailed down her cheeks. He tried to find the words that would make it all better.
Instead, all he could do was be there for her until she was ready to open up. As much as it killed him.
A storybook kiss on New Year’s Eve at the Big Sky Mavericks Masked Ball in Marietta, Montana should have been the beginning of a grand romance for Gretchen Zabrinski and Daniel Andrews. But when Gretchen overhears a phone call from Daniel to his brother about what he really wants from a woman, she takes off…without leaving so much as a glass slipper behind.
Daniel wants a family. Gretchen will never be able to give him that. So why does fate keep throwing them together so cruelly? First, at a Copper Mountain Chocolate Shop Speed Dating event, then when he’s hired to open a new division at her PR firm. But competing, shoulder-to-shoulder, to sell the most exotic chocolate kisses for charity really is the last straw.
Is love a cosmic connection or a karmic joke? Sometimes, the answer reveals itself in a kiss—a sweet kiss shared beneath a warm Montana summer sky.
“How did you become such a wonderful dancer?”
“Lessons. My parents are both teachers. They don’t believe in leaving anything to chance—and given my father’s terrible lack of rhythm, Mom refused to inflict that on any woman in case two left feet was a dominant gene.”
“Please tell her I owe her a debt of gratitude.”
“You can tell her yourself. Dad called this morning. They’re starting home in the morning. My sister is ready to deal with her new reality alone. She might move back to Montana at some point, but for now, she doesn’t want to uproot the kids on top of adjusting to losing their dad.”
He’d alluded to a sad mystery surrounding his late brother-in-law’s death, but there were too many getting-to-know-each-other topics to get into any one conversation too deeply. Including her reason for dropping out of college and moving to Montana.
That would come out later. After the music ended. After the countdown began. After their kiss. After a night of unimaginable bliss in each other’s arms.
She crossed her fingers and stopped thinking. Tonight was about feeling. About taking risks and experiencing life to the fullest.
Moments later, the DJ played an Ed Sheeran song Makayla had shared with her earlier that week. Perfect. A shiver ran down the length of her spine.
She’d immediately downloaded the song and added the video to her playlist. She imagined the love story he sang about was her love story—the one that never happened. She squeezed her eyes tight, wishing she still wore a mask.
Daniel’s hold tightened a tiny bit, then he kissed a bare spot where her neck and shoulder met. “Nice song. I’ve never heard it before, but you truly do look perfect tonight.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you. I love my Cinderella dress. Krista’s sister has great taste.” He pulled back, a questioning look in his eyes. Did he think she was pretending to show false modesty or fishing for compliments? She blurted out a question she’d meant to ask earlier. “So, do you always take a tux with you when you travel to a dog-sitting gig?”
“My best friend has a key to my condo. He took it to a shipper I use all the time.” He looked down. “Luckily, he remembered my Ferragamos. Dancing wouldn’t be quite the same in snow boots.”
She recognized the designer’s name even if she hadn’t recognized the brand on his feet. My first time is going to be with a guy who can afford designer shoes.
In what felt like a blink, Austen returned to the stage, carrying a large digital clock and a microphone. “We are fast approaching the bewitching hour, my friends. A new year is about to begin. On behalf of the Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group, thank you all for coming. We promise to put your generosity to beneficial use locally, and we’ll see you next year.”
On cue, people started shouting, “Ten…nine…eight…”
Gretchen turned in Daniel’s arms so their fronts were pressed together. Reaching up, she slipped her fingers under the rim of his mask and pulled it free. They looked into each other’s eyes as what she hoped was an unspoken understanding passed between them.
She looped her arms across his shoulders and brought her face closer to his. “Two…one…Happy New Year!”
His lips were warmer than she’d expected. And softer. And when she gave a little “Oh,” his tongue slipped inside her mouth. Curious, friendly, interested. His taste was hers. His smell? Completely his own and something she’d forever identify as Daniel Andrews.
She melted against him, needing to touch as much of her body to his as possible. Gretchen wanted him to be the one. Her first. From what she’d learned about him on social media, he was a fun-loving go-getter who didn’t seem the least bit interested in settling down.
When it came to women, he was…um…experienced. Perhaps a bit of a player.
Works for me.
She wanted to be with someone who would treat her with gentle finesse…or maybe not-so-gentle finesse. How would she know what she liked until she tried it?
An unnatural buzzing sensation near her breast made her startle.
Daniel groaned and pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket. “My brother. Do you mind? He and Krista are in California. Different time zone.”
“Not at all. We wouldn’t be here if not for them. Please.”
“They’re on FaceTime. With all the noise, we won’t be able to hear a thing. Oh, well.”
He touched a button. A second later, two faces appeared on the screen. Krista let out a squeal of glee. “Oh, Gretchen, you look fabulous. Show me the dress, Daniel. Show me the dress.”
Daniel rolled his eyes, but he took one step back. He lowered and raised the phone as Gretchen did a spin. Then, he pulled her in close again.
Krista blinked as if to keep away tears. “I absolutely love it. You look like a fairy-tale princess. Are you having fun?”
“It’s been magical. Daniel hired a limo, and he dances like a dream. He’s been a perfect gentleman.” Until later, I hope. She bumped her nose against his cheek. “Thank you so, so much for making this happen.”
“No thanks necessary. Jonah and I are having a wonderful time, too. We only called to wish you Happy New Year.”
Jonah squeezed in. “We’re an hour behind you, so we get to make out in public twice. But hey, Daniel, quickly, did you leave the TV on for the dogs? In case someone starts shooting off guns? You are in Marietta, Montana, after all.”
Gretchen missed Daniel’s reply when Sarah Zabrinski walked up to them. “Aunt” Sarah was Gretchen’s father’s first cousin by marriage, but because of their age difference, people forgot they were part of the same generation.
She gave Gretchen a quick hug. “You two are just the cutest couple. We really enjoyed meeting Daniel. I hope you bring him tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Since she’d never spent the night with a man, she didn’t know what to expect from the morning after.
Gretchen made what she hoped was a noncommittal reply and waved goodbye as the crowd swept Sarah away.
She turned back to Daniel. She reached out to touch his shoulder but stopped when she heard him say in a low, confidential tone, “I never thought I’d say this, brother, but I think I just kissed the mother of my future children.”
She sucked in an involuntary gasp when a pain as sharp and gut wrenching as the one she’d felt in her doctor’s office the day he’d explained the ramifications of her diagnosis made her knees wobble. Panic hit a second later.
No. No. It’s not supposed to be like this. Tonight is mutual fun, no commitment. No future. Period. Anything else wouldn’t be fair.
Especially to Daniel.
But she couldn’t speak those words aloud because then he’d ask why…and she hadn’t said those words to anyone. Not yet.
Intent on disappearing, she turned and melted into the crowd exiting the party. She grabbed her jacket from the coatroom, grateful her tiny purse held her cell phone. Her Uber app showed one driver in her area. Three minutes later, she was on the road back to Paradise. Her sister and niece might not be expecting her, but Sam would understand. And that was all Gretchen wanted. Someone who wouldn’t ask for something she couldn’t give.
When Marietta newcomer Elena Puente is coerced into attending a speed-dating event at the popular Copper Mountain Chocolate shop, she’s blindsided by a serious attraction to local cowboy, Wesley Banks.
Still recovering from a broken engagement, the first-grade teacher from Las Vegas isn’t looking for romance. She’s in Montana to get to know the great-grandfather she never knew existed until she found some hidden family letters. Judge Kingsley is a grouchy recluse and he’s far from welcoming, but Elena is determined to stay in town long enough to give his neglected estate on Bramble Lane a facelift.
Elena’s resolve to avoid romance is tested when she discovers Wesley is the caretaker of her grandfather’s rural property. Soon, she and the cowboy are attending more speed-dating events at the chocolate shop and she’s seeking his advice on how to deal with his ornery boss. Local gossips wager the old Judge will run Elena out of town before anything serious develops between her and Wesley. But Wesley’s a determined man, too, and he’s betting Elena belongs in Marietta forever…with him.
Wes pointed to the river where Elena’s bobber went under the water. “You caught a fish.” He set his pole aside. Wrapping his arms around her, he placed his hands over hers before turning the reel slowly—very slowly, savoring the feel of Elena against him.
“Where’s the fish?” she asked. “I can’t see it.”
“Shh… It’s there.” He could stay right here in this moment with Elena all day and never tire of touching her. When he turned the reel twice more, a small trout rose out of the water.
“I caught one!” She jerked the pole too hard, and the fish plopped into the water. “What happened?”
“Your excitement scared him off the hook.” Wes loved staring into her eyes—blue as a clear Montana sky. Her gaze lured him closer but right when her mouth was within reach, the judge’s voice rang out. They jumped apart and Elena dropped the pole, which fell into the water and was swept away by the current.
Elena climbed to her feet. “Hello, Gramps.”
The judge’s mouth twitched as if he found the endearment amusing.
“I thought you were spending all day in court?” She left Wes at the end of the dock and walked over to her grandfather.
“Two of my cases were rescheduled.” The judge eyed Wes as he approached. “Are you going to finish mowing the yard or sit out here and fish all day?”
Wes opened his mouth to respond, but his boss turned on his heel and disappeared through the gate in the hedge.
Elena retrieved the tackle box and surviving pole, then stopped at his side. “I’ll take a rain check on that kiss.”
He grasped her wrist. “I don’t give out rain checks.”
“Then maybe you should pay up now.” The pupils in her eyes dilated, leaving only a sliver of blue visible.
“Gladys Simons is still on her porch.”
“Then we’ll give her something to watch,” she whispered.
Wes brushed his mouth against Elena’s not once but twice before he pulled away.
“Is that all you’ve got?” she teased.
He cupped her face, tilted her head to the side then he swooped in and kissed her again—not a flirty peck, but a long, soft exploration of her mouth that left them breathing hard. “How was that?”
Wes watched her fanny twitch back and forth as he followed her through the gate.
Excerpt © Tule Publishing
She shoved the phone in her pocket and took a deep breath of air. “Smells like snow.”
Her exhale created a puffy white cloud that looped around her head like a halo. “Ken ordered me not to go looking for you last night,” she told him.
“That bastard.” Hank drove his fist into the palm of his other hand. The cracking sound made Rook spin about and race up the steps. He planted himself at Hank’s feet, eyeing Meg suspiciously. “How’d he justify that?”
“Said he didn’t want to have to recover my body, too.”
Rook’s growl matched Hank’s.
Hank leaned down and stroked the dog’s wide flat head. The snow and ice felt like shards of glass against his palm. Slowly, his tension eased. “Thank God you didn’t listen to him.”
She made a sound of pure disgust. “I stopped listening to Ken Morrison a long time ago.”
He could tell there was more to the story. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a memory raised its hand, but he ignored it. Anybody who traveled the backcountry probably had a run-in with SAR’s resident megalomaniac.
“How soon is the next wave supposed to hit?”
She shrugged then stepped closer and put out her hand for Rook to sniff. “A couple of hours. Why?”
“I left a bunch of stuff in Betsy. Dog food, for one. Tools. My log.”
She nodded. “You should take a video of the crash site. Maybe you’ll be able to see what brought her down.”
They were close enough to touch each other, and it took every ounce of willpower Hank had not to pull her into his arms and kiss her. “Wow,” he said, curling his icy fingers tight. “People have always called you brilliant. Now, I see why.”
Her sardonic grin made his heart rate speed up. Had she always been this beautiful? Yes. But business dress and heels were fake beauty. No makeup, messy hair dancing in the cold breeze, a blush of chafed skin from last night’s rescue made her the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Their gazes met and held for one heartbeat…or ten. Something passed between them. A sigh. A hint of possibility. An open-ended question.
Meg was the first to look away. “Just being practical,” she said, taking a step back.
Her voice sounded different, throaty. She reached for the handle of the storm door. “I know Ken Morrison. He’ll try to turn this recovery into a photo op and pin the blame on you. I have a video camera you can use. I’ll make sure the battery is charged while you get ready.”
Video. The GoPro. “We need to finish opening gifts, first. The one I got JJ might be just the ticket.”
He followed her inside. “Are you sure you’re okay with all this? I mean, damn. I drop out of the sky into your nice peaceful life, and suddenly you’re stuck babysitting? That seems messed up.”
She hung her heavy jacket on a hook then spun around to open the cupboard above the washer and dryer. “Yeah, well, normally, I’d volunteer to hike back with you, but hauling all four kids up the mountain sounds like a really bad idea. So, you take this–” She pulled a small black camera-type case from a shelf and turned to face him. “And I’ll bake cookies with Annie and Bravo.”
She reached out and touched his upper arm. “Henry, nobody planned this. We have to roll with the situation. You should hurry.”
She turned to go but he stopped her. He couldn’t help himself. His life was upside down and in the toilet with vultures circling, but Meg made him feel as if everything was manageable. He pulled her into a hug.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.
She stiffened at first, but gradually hugged him back. “You’re welcome.”
He had no idea how long they stood there. Meg in her pink and gray camoflage-print pajamas, him in sweats and a pair of men’s slippers he’d found in the guest room closet. They were virtual strangers, yet they fit together like they’d done this a million times over the years.
When she lifted her chin to look at him, he kissed her. He couldn’t not.
Her lips were sweet…and minty. The flavor surprised him at first but captivated him, too. He wanted more of this spicy wonderment. As sweet as it was, he wanted to find the flavor of Meg.
When he closed his eyes to take the kiss deeper, Meg stiffened a tiny bit. A badly needed reality check.
He let her go. “Peppermint.”
She nodded. “Annie shared her candy cane with me.”
“Annie’s the most generous soul I’ve ever known, next to her mother.” He stepped back. “I should go.”
“Yes. Quickly. You don’t want to get caught in another storm.”
“I’ll take JJ.”
“Good idea. His feet look about my size. He can use my snowshoes.”
She reached for the doorknob but paused. “What was that kiss for?”
“You…impress me. Most people would be overwhelmed by this situation. Four kids. A virtual stranger. You take charge and get things done. I respect the hell out of that.”
“Oh. Okay.” She slowly turned the knob. “But, for the record, you’re not a stranger. I feel like we have twenty years of history between us. Not easy history, but I always felt like we held each other in mutual respect. Didn’t you?”
“Yes. Definitely. And if I’d known you tasted like candy canes, I wouldn’t have waited twenty years to kiss you.”
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Her grin brought her face to life in a way that grabbed him by the heart. Her lips, reddened from the cold and from licking a dab of chocolate from the raisins, were totally kissable. Inviting. His mouth watered and his fingers tingled from wanting to touch her.
Uh-oh. Not cool. No kissing.
He got up and brushed off the seat of his pants with far more theater than needed. Feeling her puzzled gaze on him, he grabbed the first distraction he could find. “Sun’s out. Wow. That was fast.”
She pulled out her phone. “Do you want me to take a shot of you?”
“Let’s do a selfie.”
She made a face. “I’m really bad at those.”
“I’ve done a million. Give me your phone.”
He took his time positioning her to give them the best backdrop then sidled up close and put his free arm around her shoulders. He liked the way she fit against him. He liked the strong, firm muscles he felt tense beneath his arm. She wasn’t completely comfortable with this closeness, he could tell, but he liked it a lot. Too much.
He extended his right arm, camera ready to go. “Okay. Smile for the masses.”
He pictured her rolling her eyes at that so he snapped a couple of extra. When she started to move away, he tightened his grip. “Wait. One more for me, only.”
He turned his head, leaned down and kissed her obviously unsuspecting lips. The electric spark that connected the instant their lips touched nearly made him drop the phone, but somehow he remembered to click the exposure before she pushed him away.
“What was that for? Blackmail?”
“How can I blackmail you? It’s your phone.”
“Oh. Right.” Her cheeks flushed red and he fell a little deeper in love. Not real love, but the real in-this-moment sort. The kind he manufactured effortlessly for the big and small screen.
“But I’d really appreciate it if you’d send me a copy. Will you?”
She grabbed the phone and stuffed it in her pocket. “Maybe. I’m not comfortable kissing strangers.”
“We’re not strangers. We know each other’s life stories. I told you about my sister and I never talk about her in interviews.”
Because it hurts too much.
Because I blame myself for not doing more.
Because, deep down, I’m glad she’s gone.
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“As you can see, this was the bedroom. We’ve removed the furniture to avoid injury, but just imagine what a nightmare it must have been to sleep in a room that seems to be constantly shifting from side to side. We call this the dizzy room for a reason, so don’t be surprised if a stranger is suddenly holding on to you for balance.”
She took a deep breath and walked straight to the middle of the room. Almost instantly, her equilibrium went haywire. She stepped on what looked like a level surface and felt her foot drop a quarter of an inch. Just enough to throw her balance off. She staggered, which prompted Shane to dash into the room.
“Watch out,” she warned.
He weaved to the left like a drunk after a long night at a bar. “Holy crap,” he muttered. “What the he–?”
She grabbed his arm and pulled him closer to the wall. He looked slightly dazed. “Wow. What is it?”
“You’d have to ask my dad. Unfortunately, I think the secret went to the grave with him. All I know is it’s very effective. I’ve seen people bob and weave all the way back to their car. I’ve done this tour so often I barely feel it unless I’m in the middle of the room.”
He put a hand to his forehead. “I’ve got the spinners. Like those nights in college when you drank too much then lay down in bed and the ceiling was going around in circles.”
He looked at her so intently she realized she must have said the word aloud.
“Sorry. Wrong thing to say.”
She shook her head. “It was a long time ago. Shall we finish the tour? There’s an exit through the back, but since I have to lock up, I think we should go out the way we came in.”
His usual serious look was back on his face. He nodded and pushed off from the wall to lead the way. He only made it a few steps before listing sideways, like the Titanic after meeting the iceberg. She tried to keep him upright, but his momentum was too great. They both staggered a few steps then crashed into the wall. The wall with the drawing of a four-poster with a patchwork quilt on it, and they landed smack dab in the middle of the one-dimensional mattress.
“This was your plan all along, right?” Shane asked, wrapping his arms around her to keep steady. “To get me in bed?”
She laughed to keep her panic at bay, but to her surprise she didn’t feel the usual fear that came when someone got too close, too fast. In fact, she liked the feeling of being in his arms. Warm. Secure. Protected.
“I’ve seen the same thing happen to other people. Perfect strangers. Dad used to say it was all about a person’s polarity-–positive and negative.”
His eyes were such a deep, yummy brown. Like chocolate syrup. “Does that mean one of us is a magnet and the other iron filings?”
She knew which she’d be. “Maybe we’re both iron filings being drawn to the giant magnet in the wall.”
He arched his neck to look over his shoulder, his skepticism clearly back in place. Laughing, she put her hands flat against his chest and pushed back. She waited for her balance to return, the way it usually did, but if anything, she was even loopier. Her hands wouldn’t leave his shirt. Her breath was shallow and shaky. Because she knew he was going to kiss her.
Kiss. His mouth touching her mouth. No. She didn’t kiss. Or touch. Or… But no words of protest made it out before his lips touched hers.
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No more chocolate! No more meddling! No more men!
New Year’s resolutions are great. Announcing them in a crowded bar, with a chocolate martini in her hand? Not Maddie Cash’s finest moment. It’s time this new realtor got serious about her life and this time, she means it.
But when hospital volunteering lands her at the bedside of bruised and battered Mick Meyer, who has no knowledge of Maddie’s reputation – and no memory of the kiss he begged from her during that long, pain-filled night, her best-laid plans are put in jeopardy. It’s not just his sweet tooth that’s tempting her.
The hunky bush pilot with the concussion has an old family property to unload. Making this sale could be Maddie’s professional salvation. But when Mick turns on the charm, she’s in danger of forgetting all her best intentions… on chocolate… on meddling… and especially on men.
He’d already seen the world and he was nowhere near broke. But he’d gladly spend his last dime to show it to Maddie.
It felt like the world outside his room, outside this little cubicle in which his bed and Maddie’s chair sat, had receded to some other dimension. This was a space outside of ordinary time, suspended and removed like a picture cut from a photo album.
The two of them strangers, yet thrown together for these few hours, so momentous for Mick in his pain and, yes, he’d admit it, his fear.
What was it for Maddie? Just another evening spent at the bedside of a needy hospital patient?
He understood how concussions worked. Tomorrow, he could wake up – assuming he was eventually allowed to sleep – with no recollection of this conversation, or the touch of her magic hands. Or their gentle flirting, the ease with which they joked about their lives.
He lifted his hand and grasped her wrist, lightly. She stilled. Their eyes met, hers wide and dark, questioning but unalarmed.
Perhaps he’d be left with a fleeting, dream-like vision of a woman with soft hands and a kind voice. An angel.
Or perhaps he’d see her again and she’d be a complete stranger to him.
“Kiss me?” he whispered.
“Mick.” She pulled her hand, but he didn’t let it go.
“I know it’s not real, Maddie,” he said. “In an hour or two you’ll go home.”
“And come morning, you’ll probably forget we ever met.”
Understanding filled her dark eyes, warm and sad.
“I don’t want to forget you, Maddie.”
“But you will. And it’s okay.”
“So, kiss me. Maybe I won’t.”
She smiled at him, so sweetly he could already taste her lips on his.
Strawberries? Chocolate? Pancakes and syrup? He had to know.
But she touched a finger to his lips.
“Like you said, this isn’t real. It’s adrenalin and pain and endorphins and whatever they’re pumping into you through that IV drip.”
“Right now, it’s real.”
She leaned closer.
“I’m eighty percent certain that this isn’t allowed. Maybe ninety.”
“Do it for me.”
She bent forward, very slowly, keeping her gaze on his, holding his hand. He inhaled a trace of something light and flowery, lotion perhaps. Or her shampoo. It smelled… purple. Like lilac.
Remember this. Keep this.
Light shone behind her head, renewing the halo he’d seen earlier. A lock of golden hair slipped free of the pins, fell over her shoulder and brushed against his cheek. Her neck was fragrant as a garden warmed by the sun.
Lilac, spring breeze, sunshine.
Ever so lightly, like the first touch of floats on a glassy lake, she pressed her hands to his face, her lips to his.
And then they were gone, leaving a cool spot on his skin.
He tucked the memories into his brain, like petals in a book, even knowing the book would get filed away in a locked library, the key to which lay beneath the frozen surface of a lost lake.
Hold on. Hold this.
Lilacs. Sunshine. Love.
“I have to go,” she whispered.
“By tomorrow, you’ll have forgotten all about me.”
Footsteps approached. Another voice. The rattle of wheels and metal.
“You will forget.” Maddie put her face next to his ear. Her breath warmed his cheek. “But I won’t.”
And then she was gone.