Authors: Annabel Wolfe
“I’m glad too,” she whispered. “So glad.”
And it was the absolute truth.
If Eric did say so himself, the steaks were cooked perfectly, charred slightly on the outside, pink and juicy inside, and Nicole had busied herself by twice baking the potatoes, making the filling fluffy and full of melted cheese and sour cream, and then had done something with the salad that involved a homemade vinaigrette with roasted garlic and parmesan.
That told him something. Cooking was her form of creating time to think. He’d seen it before and it didn’t really surprise him now.
Jack finished eating first, and that didn’t surprise him either. He was definitely thinner than Eric ever remembered. Jack said, “I’ll get the dishes since you both did the cooking. That was fantastic.”
Nicole rose wordlessly and went to wrap up her food, mostly uneaten, and at that moment Eric questioned his decision to come over at all. He was very much in love with her, all of her. Yes, part of it was physical, he wasn’t going to deny that, but their relationship was good in other ways. On an intellectual level they just seemed to connect, and even before Jack’s disappearance Eric had to force himself to not think of her in a sexual way, because the attraction had always been there.
It still was. Other than that one less-than-satisfying kiss when he walked through the door that morning, he hadn’t touched her in well over a week, and he wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms—into his bed would be even better—and offer her whatever she needed.
He’d add advice to that list but he sure as hell wasn’t impartial and besides, he really had no idea what to say. She loved Jack—so did he, for that matter. Grief was different for everyone but he’d mourned Jack deeply too.
Outside the summer sky had faded to shades of indigo mingled with streaks of crimson as the sun set. The insects in the trees made a quiet rhythmic sound, and out through the French doors he could see the fireflies were out by the occasional tiny flash.
“It’s getting dark…do you want me to go?” He asked it quietly.
She slid the plate into the refrigerator and closed the door and turned. Her gaze was regretful. “Want? No. But—”
It was Jack who said in his usual cool drawl, “Don’t leave because of me.”
His phone rang then, halting the conversation, and he fished it deftly out of his pocket, a strange look crossing his lean face. There was a second of hesitation, and then he pushed a button. “This is Templeton.”
A second later, Eric understood his friend’s expression when Jack said hoarsely, “Hi, Dad.”
In unspoken accord, both Eric and Nicole went out the open French doors to the deck, giving him privacy for what was undoubtedly going to be an emotional conversation. Nicole leaned against the railing, her smile a little misty. “I can only imagine their reaction to the news. They just got back their son. His phone rang earlier, a certain ring, and he said he knew then the news was going to be released to the families and the media.”
Eric remembered all too well how devastated the Templetons had been. He nodded and leaned next to her, elbows propped on the rail. “That is going to be one hell of a reunion.”
“At first I thought I was dreaming last night.”
“Jack always did have a flare for the dramatic,” Eric said dryly. “I won’t ask exactly how he woke you. I’ve got a pretty good imagination.”
She blushed, just a hint of color creeping up into her cheeks. “I—”
“Nikki, you don’t owe me an apology or even an explanation. Whatever happened was between you and Jack. I love you, but I never have expected to dictate your life in any way. You are a grown woman.” He gave her a deliberately teasing grin. “Very much a woman, I might add.”
“Looks like I’m the one who is leaving.” Jack walked out, the phone still in his hand. “My dad’s all choked up—I could hardly understand him.”
Eric thought Jack looked a little choked up himself under his always-controlled demeanor. “Take my car,” he offered, sliding the keys from his pocket and giving them a toss. “I can find a ride home. It’ll be forty-five minutes before you get out to where they live and they are on pins and needles, I bet, waiting to see you and know it’s all real.”
Jack had caught the keys easily, and they exchanged a look, brief but of pure male understanding.
Eric was going to do his damnedest to be invited to stay the night and his friend got it.
They had pretty much always known what the other one was thinking. Jack nodded. “Thanks. I’ll bring it back tomorrow.” He transferred his gaze to Nicole and said softly, “And thanks for dinner, Nikki. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
She nodded. “Tell your parents hello and give your mother an extra hug for me, please.”
He was gone a minute later, the sound of the car starting and pulling away from the house fading as they stood there, not saying anything, the lowering dusk lending shadows to Nicole’s incredible cheekbones.
This might be one of the most defining moments in his life. Eric sure as hell hoped he handled it the right way.
He reached over and took her hand, sliding his fingers through hers, the clasp gentle. “I can’t pretend to know what you are thinking, sweetheart. This is a chance for us to talk and we’ve always been good at that.”
The man didn’t ask much, did he?
Talk. She had a feeling she knew what the topic would be.
Nicole looked at Eric, the familiar clean line of his jaw, the veil of lashes that were unfairly long over his eyes, the finely modeled mouth that had kissed hers with both passion and tenderness so many times in the past months once she’d finally let him into her life.
He was right. Eric was frequently right. They did talk. Companionably, with laughter and insight, and it was amazingly comfortable and always had been.
But she wasn’t sure she was ready to talk about Jack’s return.
Eric was looking at her expectantly, his fingers tightening just a fraction, no doubt a reflexive response to her hesitation. “I wouldn’t mind another glass of wine,” she said. “It’s nice out here considering how hot it got this afternoon.”
“I’ll get it,” he offered, but then again he would. He was always considerate. If she asked him to leave right at this moment to give her some space, he wouldn’t argue. Space was probably something she needed.
Paradoxically, she didn’t want him to go.
He let go of her hand and she watched him go inside. She chose a chair at the table and sat down, and when he emerged a moment later with a glass of chardonnay, she accepted it with a murmured thank-you.
He’d brought a fresh beer for himself and sat down opposite her but didn’t drink. Instead, he simply smoothed the moisture from the sides of the bottle, his gaze focused on her face. And waited.
He was very good at that. She clearly remembered how patient he’d been when they first started dating, reading her body language with unerring accuracy, never rushing her into that first kiss, that first touch, that first night.
It made her wonder what he was reading now, because she had no idea what to do next.
In this case, and because she really owed him honesty, she said, “I’m torn.”
“You’ve already slept with both of us, sweetheart. We know it too. I didn’t murder Jack, and lo and behold, he didn’t kill me either. Do you think for a minute he isn’t fully aware of the fact that there’s nothing more I want in this world right now more than to wake up next to you tomorrow morning? He knew it before he walked out that door. It’s your life, your body, your choice. We are both cognizant of that.”
Put that way it sounded infinitely reasonable, but there was nothing at all reasonable about her current dilemma. Nicole lifted her hand in a helpless gesture. “You aren’t jealous?”
“Under the circumstances, no. God, Nikki, I’ve heard you say out loud you love him. In front of me,
him. That you slept with him means far less than that, trust me. But you’ve also said it to me, and I think you do.”
Her throat was suddenly tight. “I do love you. That’s why I’m so—”
“Torn. Right. Don’t be. No one is going to crowd you. You don’t have to worry about this tonight.”
The man had a devastating smile. Nothing like Jack’s flashing, wicked grin, but slow and warm and compelling.
And she wanted him to stay. God help her, she very much wanted him to stay.
Being Eric, he already knew that. He stood and walked around the table. It was fully dark now, the street quiet, the only sounds the insects crooning in the trees. He held out his hand. “Since you aren’t drinking your wine and I’m not drinking my beer…do you want to go inside?”
It was true she hadn’t taken a single sip.
She…couldn’t sleep with him.
. She just shouldn’t.
She wanted to. The idea of sleeping alone was fine—she did most nights despite her relationship with Eric—but she doubted she’d even close her eyes considering the events of the past twenty-four hours if she was alone.
Besides, she’d missed him.
She put her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet. “This is going to be very complicated. I want you to stay.”
“Uh-huh.” He kissed her in the lingering way he had, long and sweet and slow.
At that point she was lost. She whispered huskily, “I can’t possibly—”
“You can.” His mouth moved to her temple and he pulled her closer. Close enough she could feel the tautness in his muscles and his growing arousal.
Somehow her arms were around his neck and when he kissed her throat, his lips skimming the sensitive hollow just above her collarbone, she made an involuntary sound in response, her reservations melting away.
Complicated suddenly became simple.
They loved each other, and he wanted it and so did she. What could be simpler than that?
“Let’s go in,” she suggested, her hands smoothing his back.
Was she really going to do this?
She was. She turned and walked into the house, hearing him shut the doors and slide the lock home with a clean click.
Eric was right behind her when she walked into the bedroom, his hands catching her shoulders, sliding downward to cup her breasts through the material of her shirt. His mouth teased her neck. “Perfect.”
“I’m far from perfect,” she murmured in laughing protest, turning around.
“Perfect for me.” He kissed her, walking her backwards until she was against the bed and then suddenly on it, his weight on top of her, his mouth hungry and insistent. Nicole kissed him back with equal fervor, shifting beneath him, arching upward.
“God, yes,” he said as her hands slid under his shirt, pushing it upward. He ripped it up over his head and reached for the buttons on her blouse, slipping them free with deft precision and removing her bra with the same urgency, then they were bare breasts to bare chest, his skin warm against her erect nipples. His breath was hot against her ear. “Can you feel how much I want you?”
The hard length of his erection was hardly a secret as closely as his body pressed against hers. Now that she had decided to do this—and she did wonder how she’d look back on this moment—there was no reversing it. “Show me,” she told him, running her nails lightly along his torso.
“That isn’t something you need to ask me twice.” Hazel eyes gazed into hers with a singular depth of emotion that melted her heart.
He shed his shorts swiftly and then turned to hers, his erection high and swollen against the flat plane of his stomach as he slid the material down her hips and tossed them carelessly aside. His body was toned and sleek, his shoulders wide, and when he leaned down to trace the curve of her breast with his mouth, her breath caught in her throat.
“You taste like vanilla.” He lightly sucked on her nipple, and then drew it more deeply into his mouth. “Delicious.”
In answer, she lifted her pelvis to press against his rigid cock, tingles running up her spine. He used his tongue to tease and tempt, and his other hand was busy, gently massaging the other breast as he suckled.
It was impossible to deny she was wet and ready, the warmth between her legs growing with each touch, each caress, and Nicole couldn’t suppress a muted sigh of enjoyment.
He knew her. Knew her body, knew every sensitive spot, every inch, and when his fingers traveled south, she opened her thighs without reservation.
His touch was practiced and…perfect.
She trembled at the rush of pleasure, and in response, he murmured, “Not yet.”
Normally he wasn’t a demanding lover, in the sense that what he wanted the most was for her to enjoy it. It went without saying that he was going to have mind-blowing sex if Nicole was involved, so he went out of his way to make sure she had the same sort of experience.
Her skin was like hot, slippery satin as he parted her labia and began to stroke her, first with his fingers, and then with his tongue, shifting so he was nestled between her open legs, his hair brushing her slender thighs. He could taste her arousal, feel the swelling of her clitoris as he brought her to climax, and if the low, soft sounds she made were any indication, she was enjoying it with her usual sexual abandon.