Authors: Kelly Jamieson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
"Smells good, Zach,” he commented, going to the fridge for a beer.
"Beef carbonnade,” Zach said with a grin. “Or should I say Beef Rocky Harbor Sunshine Brown Ale."
"It's made with beer?” Ashlyn asked, a little incredulous.
"Of course it's made with beer,” Zach replied. “So is dessert. Chocolate stout cake."
Ashlyn choked a little on the brew she was drinking. “Holy sh-shoot,” she managed. “I've never heard of that."
Zach shrugged and tipped the bottle to his lips. His throat worked as he drank the ale; then his lips curved in a sexy smile as he lowered the bottle. “Stick around,” he invited. “I can show you many new things."
His hot gaze fastened on her across the kitchen and it felt like a touch, a warm, delicious caress. She glanced at Connor, and then back at Zach as she forgot to breathe.
Zach, too, glanced at his brother and bit his lip.
Connor, oblivious, took a seat at the island. “How was the skate?” he asked, clearly not caring.
Ashlyn's heart tightened a little at his obvious unhappiness. Shit.
"It was good,” she said lightly. “You should have come. Do you play roller hockey, too, Connor?"
She sensed Zach's gaze on her as she made conversation with his brother.
"Yeah,” he said. “But I'm not as good as Zach. He's the athlete."
"Really?” she murmured. “I would never have guessed."
Zach snorted. “What, I'm a total spaz?"
She couldn't help but laugh. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” she mocked him, eyes dancing as she looked at his lean, muscular body. Even the way he walked was athletic and graceful, and he was as smooth on those skates as Wayne Gretzky on ice.
Their eyes met and held, sharing her teasing amusement, and a sweet heat enveloped her body. God, he was sexy. His lips closed over the beer bottle again and he swallowed, eyes still on hers. It was the hottest thing she'd ever seen.
She took a big drink of her own beer, forgetting she detested it. She wanted to press the cold, wet bottle against the fever-hot skin of her chest.
"Yeah, I should have gone with you,” Connor said. “I just don't have much energy for anything these days.” He sounded so depressed.
God, not only was she tortured by lust for Zach, but Connor was testing her conscience as well.
"You two aren't twins, are you?” she asked, and Zach laughed.
"No,” he said. “Connor's two years older than I am."
"You look so much alike."
"Yeah. I could see you were kind of confused when we walked into that meeting room the other day."
"Oh, yeah.” She'd been confused all right. Dazed and confused.
"Hey,” Connor said suddenly, apparently reminded of her connection to the investigation. “Tell us more about what you guys are going to do tomorrow."
"Well.” Ashlyn rubbed the condensation on the bottle with her thumb, up and down. “I don't know all the details, but tomorrow we're going to have a look at your place and decide what we need to do. They'll check out your security, see if there's a good place for a hidden camera or two, I don't know. If you want they can tap everyone's phones and record conversations, and we can also monitor everyone's computer use. But I think first we should try to narrow down a couple of prime suspects."
"Yeah.” Connor nodded. Zach tossed noodles into a pot of boiling water and then lifted the lid on steaming baby carrots. Ashlyn liked watching him work in the kitchen. She had no interest in cooking whatsoever, although she did like to eat. Who knew cooking could be so sexy?
"That's a problem,” Zach said heavily, stirring the noodles. “I can't believe someone who works for us would do something like that."
"You must think it's possible, or you wouldn't have come to us,” Ashlyn pointed out.
Zach poured pretzels from a bag into a bowl and slid it across the counter towards Ashlyn and Connor. They both reached hungrily into the bowl.
"I know,” he agreed. “But I guess I mean I just don't
to believe someone who works for us would do it. Jesus. They're our friends."
"They're our employees,” Connor corrected.
Zach rolled his eyes. “They're our friends."
"Maybe we should think about possibilities,” Ashlyn said. “Who's worked for you the shortest time?"
The two men thought. “That would be Emma Smith,” Connor said. “Our office manager and bookkeeper. She's only worked for us for about six months."
"When did Steinbrau first contact you?” Ashlyn asked, holding a pretzel.
"About ... six months ago,” Zach said slowly.
"Before or after Emma started working for you?"
Zach and Connor exchanged a look. “I'm not sure,” Connor said. “I think it was after."
"It was before,” Zach said.
"After,” Connor snapped.
"We can check tomorrow,” Ashlyn intervened, snagging another pretzel. She washed it down with beer and, to her surprise, realized she'd drunk the whole bottle. “Anybody else start working for you around then?"
"No,” Connor answered. “Everyone else has worked for us for years."
They talked about the people who worked at the brewery. Even though Ashlyn wasn't an investigator, she had a natural curiosity and good instincts. Usually.
"Who has access to information about your new products?” she asked.
"Well, Ava Cooper, the Sales and Marketing Manager,” Zach said uncomfortably. “And of course Melissa Jackson, our salesperson. Plus Tim, my assistant brewer."
"Okay,” she said. “Who has access to the yeast?"
"Nobody,” Zach said immediately. “Just me."
"Not even you?” she asked Connor. He shook his head.
"I have no clue what to do with yeast,” he said. “Zach keeps the yeast locked in a lab. It has to be refrigerated at the right temperature. He's the only one who has a key."
"How many keys are there?"
"One. No, two.” She raised her brows at him. Zach grinned. “I have one key at work and an extra one here at home. It's in a safe place."
"Are you sure?"
He shrugged. “Yeah. I haven't touched it in years."
"Maybe you should check."
He went down the hall to his bedroom and came back a few minutes later holding up the key. “Right here,” he said.
Ashlyn nodded, still thinking.
"And the one at work?” she asked. “Where do you keep it?"
"Locked in my desk,” he answered. “And my desk key is on my key ring, which is always with me."
"Always?” Ashlyn was skeptical. She'd heard many stories from her dad about how careless people could be with keys, thinking they were always safe and secure.
Zach's eyes shifted sideways and he grimaced. “Well, almost always,” he said. “I've never been that concerned, because I trust everyone who works for us."
Ashlyn smiled slightly and shook her head.
"I think dinner's ready,” Zach said, changing the subject.
They sat at the counter, eating and drinking. “This is really, really good,” Ashlyn said approvingly. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, the sauce rich and tangy. “You're a great cook."
Zach smiled at her. “Thanks."
When he served dessert, she wished she hadn't eaten so much beef. The cake was dense and moist, with a deep chocolate flavor. “I can't believe this has beer in it,” she marveled. “It's awesome."
When they were done, she tried to help with dishes, but both men waved her away. “Zach cooked, I'll clean up,” Connor said firmly. Zach put the leftovers in the fridge and then turned to Rocky.
"Want to go for a walk, boy?” he asked, and Rocky immediately leaped to his feet and started spinning in excited circles.
Ashlyn laughed at him.
"Let's go for a walk on the beach.” Zach grabbed a leash off a hook near the door, but didn't hook it to Rocky's collar. “We can walk off some of that dinner."
Only too happy to get a bit of exercise after all the food, Ashlyn followed Zach and Rocky out onto the deck, then down the stairs to the beach.
The low sun gilded everything with rich golden light. Their shadows stretched out long and thin across the sand as they walked. Seagulls cried out overhead, their pure white wings stretched in a soaring arc. Zach picked up a stick and threw it for Rocky.
"Good arm,” Ashlyn said approvingly. Zach glanced at her, looking pleased, and put his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, matching his stride as they strolled down the beach, watching Rocky cavort in the sand and waves. He brought the stick back and dropped it at Zach's feet, the ritual repeated numerous times as they walked.
"What was the meeting you were at this afternoon?” Ashlyn asked.
"It was a final meeting of the planning committee for the Pooch Picnic next weekend."
"Oh, I've heard of that,” she said. “You're involved with that?"
He nodded and threw the stick again. “We're one of the sponsors this year. It's a fun event, and the money goes to the Rocky Harbor Animal Shelter. That's where I got Rocky. So it's for a good cause."
"I've heard about it but I've never gone,” she said. “I thought you had to have a dog."
"Nah, you don't have to have a dog. You can come to the picnic and just watch the music or the dog contests. Then, in the evening, there's a wine and beer tasting party."
"Want to come with me next weekend?"
She hesitated. By next weekend, chances were pretty good Zach would want nothing to do with her. “Um ... I'd like to.” She hesitated. “Will you be busy working there?"
"I'll be busy for a while,” he said. “But we have lots of other volunteers, so I'll be able to have some fun. My buddy's band is playing one set in the afternoon, and I want to see them."
His hand slid from her shoulders and reached for her hand, swinging it between them as they walked. “I used to play with them.” He laughed. “We were pretty bad, but we had a hell of a lot of fun."
"Is Connor in the band?"
"No way! He's
not musical. Of course, some would say I'm not either, but that doesn't stop me from making a fool of myself."
Ashlyn laughed. “Do you plan to bring Rocky?"
"You bet. He's entered in the ‘Best Smile’ contest."
"Oh, he will definitely win! He has a great doggy smile."
At that moment, the subject of their discussion ran back and stood in front of them, that handsome smile revealing his pink tongue and big canine teeth. She couldn't help but grin back at him.
"Let's turn back,” Zach said. “The sun's almost going down."
They sauntered back to his house and climbed the stairs up to the deck. Rocky went straight to a huge bowl of water near the house and slurped noisily. When he lifted his face, water dripped off his muzzle as he looked at them, panting.
Zach pulled Ashlyn down onto the same lounge chair where they'd made love the night before, and her stomach did an excited little flip.
Zach looked at Ashlyn, all peachy and golden in the last rays of the setting sun. He stroked her shiny hair, smoothly hanging down her back, and still couldn't believe his luck. The more he talked to her, the more he knew she was his dream girl. It was all he could do to stop himself from proposing marriage right then and there.
He knew he was impulsive; he'd made bad decisions in the past. Still, he was so sure Ashlyn was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with—but something held him back. All his life, Connor, Mr. Cautious and Controlled, had bugged him because he was so rash. Well, he'd be proud of him right now.
"What's wrong?” Ashlyn asked softly, leaning into him. She was luscious, her body slim but firmly muscled. He'd loved watching her rollerblade, her thighs and calves strong under smooth honey-colored skin. He liked how her long hair had blown behind her and around her face. He really liked how nice she was to Rocky, because Rocky was important.
"Nothing,” he said. “I was just admiring you."
She smiled at him, her gorgeous hazel eyes glinting gold. He groaned and leaned towards her for a kiss, angling his mouth across hers. God, she tasted sweet, sweet and tempting. He stroked her lips with his tongue and then slid into her mouth, tasting her deeply. She opened for him and kissed him back, and her hands came up to his shoulders, holding him. His groin tightened, and he had to feel her too.
He cupped her head in his hands and held her there as he kissed her over and over.
"This is crazy,” she whispered when he broke the kiss momentarily. He brushed her soft cheek with his mouth.
"I don't even know you,” she replied, her voice smooth and sweet like honey.
"I'd say we know each other pretty well,” he murmured back, brushing his mouth across hers again. He felt her smile.
"In some ways.” She leaned back, and the flashing colors and desire shining in her eyes mesmerized him. He stroked one of his thumbs across her bottom lip; her tongue came out to lick him. Oh man. He spread the wetness along her lip, watching her mouth as her lips parted beneath his touch.
He was a goner. If they slept together again tonight, there was no way he could stop himself from professing undying love and trying to convince her to elope with him.
"I should take you home,” he said, forcing the words out. He saw a faint hint of disappointment on her face. “We have to get up early in the morning. We're meeting your dad at the brewery at nine."
"Oh yeah.” She took a deep, breast-lifting breath, attracting his gaze down to them. Oh, no. Her full breasts swelled above the low-cut top. He knew she had a bra on because he could see the straps, the same raspberry color as the tank top, but he could also see her nipples pressing tautly against the soft fabric. He had to touch them.
He cupped one breast as he kissed her again, lost in the honey taste and the lush fullness of her soft breast in his hand. He squeezed gently and rubbed his palm over the nipple. She moaned into his mouth.
Jesus, trying to be sensible and cautious was killing him. His boner strained against his shorts, which moments ago had been loose and baggy. Now he filled the front of them impressively, and he knew Ashlyn could feel him against her hip.