Authors: Kat Cantrell
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance
She snorted out a half laugh, and it rumbled pleasantly against his chest. There was something amazing about being able to comfort a woman so insistent on not needing it. He’d grown really fond of soothing away that prickliness.
“I could use a glass of wine,” she admitted.
“I have exactly the thing. Come inside.” He drew back and smiled when some snap crept back into her watery eyes. “You can drink it while you watch me cook.”
“You cook?” That dried up her waterworks in a hurry. “With an oven?”
“Sure enough. I can even turn it on by myself.” As he led the way into the kitchen, a squawk cut him off. “Oh, good. Your wedding present is here.”
Cia raised her brows at the large cage sitting on the island in the middle of the kitchen. “That’s a bird.”
“Yep. An African gray parrot.” He shed his suit jacket and draped it over a chair in the breakfast nook.
“You’re giving me a bird? As a wedding present?”
“Not any bird. African grays live up to fifty years, so you’ll have company as you live all by your lonesome the rest of your life. And they talk. I figure anyone who likes to argue as much as you do needed a pet who can argue back. I named her Fergie.” He shrugged. “Because you like hip-hop.”
Speechless, Cia stared at the man she had married, whom she clearly did not know at all, and tried to make some sort of sound.
“I didn’t get you anything,” she managed to say.
“That’s okay.” He unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them deftly halfway up his tanned forearms, then started pulling covered plates out of the stainless steel refrigerator. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”
“Neither was I,” she mumbled. “Doesn’t seem like that matters either way.”
She’d never owned a bird and would have to take a crash course on its recommended care. As she peered into the cage, the feathered creature blinked and peered back with intelligent eyes, unafraid and curious. She fell instantly in love.
The psychology of the gift wasn’t lost on her. Instead of showering her with expensive, useless presents designed to charm her panties off, he’d opted for a well-thought-out gift. An extremely well-thought-out gift designed for…what?
Every time she thought he was done, Lucas Wheeler peeled back another one of his layers, and every time, it freaked her out a little more.
Regardless, she couldn’t lie. “It’s the best present I’ve ever gotten.” And she’d remember forever not that her father hadn’t been there to give her away, but that her fake husband had given her something genuine on their wedding day. “Thanks, Lucas.”
The sentiment stopped him in his tracks, between the stove and the dishwasher, pan dangling, forgotten, from his hand. That indefinable energy crackled through the air as he treated her to a scorching once-over. “Darlin’, you are most welcome.”
“Didn’t you mention wine?” she asked, to change the subject, and slid onto a barstool edging the granite island.
There was a weird vibe going on tonight, and she couldn’t put her finger on it. Alcohol probably wouldn’t help.
Lucas retrieved a bottle from the refrigerator. “Sauvignon blanc okay?”
When she nodded, he pulled a corkscrew from a wall hanger, then expertly twisted and wiggled the cork out in one smooth motion. The man did everything with care and attention, and she had a feeling he meant for her to notice. She did. So what?
Yes, his amazing hands would glide over her bare body in a slow seduction and turn her into his sex-starved lover. No question about it.
The real question was why she was envisioning Lucas touching her after simply watching him open wine. Okay. It had nothing to do with wine and everything to do with being in his arms last night. With being kissed and watching him dance like a spastic chicken, draining away all her misery over hurting his mother.
Lucas skirted the barstools and handed her a glass of pale yellow wine. His fingers grazed hers for a shocky second, but it was over so fast, she didn’t have time to jerk away. Good thing, or she would have sloshed her drink.
He picked up his own glass and, with his smoky blue-eyed gaze locked with hers, dinged the rims together. “To partnership,” he said. “May it be a pleasurable union.”
“Successful, you mean. I’ll drink to a successful union.” As soon as the words came out, she realized her mistake. She and Lucas did not view the world through the same lens.
He took his time swallowing a mouthful of wine, and she was so busy watching his throat muscles ripple that when his forefinger tipped up her chin, she almost squealed in surprise. His thumb brushed her lips, catching on the lower one, and her breath stuttered when he tilted his head toward hers.
“Darlin’,” he said, halting way too close. His whiskey-smooth voice flowed over her. “If you find our union as pleasurable as I intend, I’ll consider that a success. Dinner will be ready in forty-five minutes.”
A hot flush stole over her cheeks and flooded the places he’d touched. He went back to cooking.
As she watched him chop and sauté and whatever, she had to instruct her stomach to unknot. He’d been messing around, like always. That’s all. For Lucas, flirting was a reflex so ingrained he probably didn’t realize he was doing it, especially when directing it at his fake wife in whom he had no real interest.
She bristled over his insincerity until Fergie squawked. A fitting distraction from obsessing about the feel of Lucas’s thumb on her mouth. She retrieved her laptop from the bedroom and researched what parrots ate while Lucas finished preparing the people food.
“The guy at the pet store said to feed her papaya. They like fruit,” Lucas said and refilled her wineglass. “There’s one in the refrigerator if you want to cut it up.”
She sighed. He’d even bought a papaya. Did the man ever sleep? “Thanks, I will.”
Silence fell as she chopped alongside her husband, and it wasn’t so bad. She shouldn’t be hard on him because he dripped sexiness and made her ache when he looked at her, as if he knew the taste of her and it was delicious. Might as well be ticked over his blue eyes.
The simple celebratory dinner turned into a lavish poolside spread. Lucas led her outside, where a covered flagstone patio edged the elegant infinity pool and palm trees rustled overhead in the slight breeze. Dust coated the closed grill in the top-of-the-line outdoor kitchen, but the landscaping appeared freshly maintained, absent of weeds and overgrown limbs.
Lucas set the iron bistro table with green Fiestaware and served as she took a seat.
“What kind of chicken is this?” she asked and popped a bite into her mouth. A mix of spices and a hint of lime burst onto her tongue.
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I made it up. The kitchen is one of the places where I let my creativity roll.”
Gee. She just bet she could guess the other place where he rolled out the creativity.
“Oh. I see.” She nodded sagely. “Part of your date-night repertoire. Do women take one bite and fall into a swoon?”
“I’ve never made it for anyone else.” His eyes glowed in the dusky light as he stared at her, daring her to draw significance from the statement.
When he stuck a forkful of couscous in his mouth and withdrew it, she pretended like she hadn’t been watching his lips.
This was frighteningly close to a conversation over a good bottle of wine, the idea he’d thrown out as the way to get to know each other. But they still weren’t dating. Perhaps he should be reminded. “Really? What do you normally make when you have a hot date you want to impress?”
He stopped eating. As he sat back in his chair, he cupped his wineglass and dangled it between two fingers, contemplating her with a reckless smile. “I’ve never cooked for anyone, either.”
She dropped her fork. Now he was being ridiculous. “What, exactly, am I supposed to take from that?”
“Well, you could deduce that I cooked you dinner because I wanted to.”
“Why? What’s with the parrot and dinner and this—” she waved at the gas torches flaming in a circle around the patio and pool “—romantic setting? Are you trying to get lucky or something?”
“Depends.” His half-lidded gaze crawled up inside her and speared her tummy. “How close am I?”
Why couldn’t he answer the question instead of talking in his endless, flirty Lucas-circles?
His interest in her was real. As real as the hunger in his expression after kissing her. As real as the evidence of his arousal while dancing last night. Clues she’d dismissed as…what? She didn’t even know; she’d just ignored them all so she didn’t have to deal with them. Now she did.
Firmly, she said, “We can’t have that kind of relationship.” The kind where she gave him a chunk of her heart and he took it with him when he left. The kind where she’d surrender her hard-won self-reliance, which would happen over her dead body. “We have an agreement.”
“Agreements can be altered.” That dangling wineglass between his fingers raked up her nerves and back down again. He couldn’t even be serious about holding stemware.
“This one can’t. What if I got pregnant?”
With fingers trembling so hard she could scarcely grip the glass, she drained the remainder of her wine and scouted around for the bottle. There’d be no children in her future. Life was too uncertain to bring another generation into it.
“Well, now that’s just insulting. What about me suggests I might be so careless?”
“Arrogance is your preferred method of birth control?”
They were discussing
She and Lucas were talking
about having sex.
Sitting by the pool, eating dinner and talking about sex with her fake-in-name-only-going-away-soon husband.
“I’m not worried, darlin’. It’s never happened before.”
She stood so fast the backs of her knees screeched the chair backward until it tipped over. “Well, that’s a relief. Please stand back as I become putty in your hands.”
He followed her to his feet without fanfare, no more bothered than if they were discussing what color to paint the bathroom.
In one step, he was an inch away, and then he reached out and placed a fingertip on her temple. Lazily, he slid the fingertip down her face, traced the line of her throat and rested it at the base of her collarbone with a tap. “What’s going on in there? You’re not afraid of getting pregnant.”
“Stop touching me.” She cocked a brow and refused to move away from the inferno roiling between Lucas’s body and hers. He was the one who should back down, not her. Last night, she’d run from this confrontation and look where that had gotten her. “Nothing is going on other than the fact that I’m not attracted to you.”
The hot press of his fingertips against her skin set off an explosion way down low. But wanting someone and being willing to surrender to the feeling were poles apart.
“I don’t believe you,” he murmured.
He wasn’t backing down. His hands eased through her hair, and unmistakable heat edged into his eye.
“What, you think you’re going to prove something by kissing me?”
“Yep,” he said and dipped his head before she could protest.
For a sixteenth of a second, she considered all possible options, and then his lips covered hers and she went with dissolving into his arms. It was all she could do when Lucas kissed her, his mouth hot and the taste of his tongue sudden and shocking.
His fingers trailed sparklers through her hair and down her spine, molding her against the potent hardness of his body. Clicking them together like nesting spoons, foretelling how sweetly they would fit without clothes.
He angled his head and took her deeper, yanking a long, hard pull from her abdomen. A burst of need uncoiled from a hidden place inside to burn in all the right places. It was real, and it was good. He was good.
So good, she could feel her resistance melting away under the onslaught of his wicked mouth. But she couldn’t give in, and,
it made her want to weep.
If only he’d kept a couple of those layers hidden. If only she had a way to insulate herself from someone like him. The intensity between them frightened her to the bone, because he had the unique ability to burrow under her defenses and take whatever he wanted.
Then he’d leave her empty, and she’d worked too hard to put herself back together after the last disastrous attempt at a relationship.
She broke away, wrenched out of his arms and rasped, “All that proves is you’ve practiced getting women naked.”
His face was implacable and his shoulders rigid beneath the fabric of his slate-gray button-down. He cleared his throat. “Darlin’, why are you fighting this so hard? At first I thought it was because you’ve been around so much misery, but there’s something else going on here.”
“Yeah. Something else, like I don’t want to. Is your ego so inflated you can’t fathom a woman not being interested in you?”
He laughed. “Hon, if that’s how you kiss a guy you’re not interested in, I’ll lick a sardine. Pick a different card.”
How dare he throw her own phrase back in her face.
“This is funny to you? How’s this for a reason? You might very well be the hottest male on the planet, but I am not willing to be your latest conquest, Wheeler.” Her hands clenched into fists and socked against his chest. For emphasis. And maybe to unleash some frustration. He didn’t move an iota.
For who knew what ill-advised reason, he reached out, but then he wisely stopped shy of her face. “Is it so difficult to believe you intrigue me and I simply want to unwrap the rest of you?”
“Yeah. It is.” She crossed her arms to prevent any more unloading of frustration. His chest was as hard as his head. And other places. “You’re feeling deprived. Go find one of the women who text messaged you earlier in the car and scratch your itch with her, because I’m not sleeping with you.”
A smile curved his mouth, but the opposite of humor flashed through his steely gaze. “In case it’s slipped your mind, I’m married. The only person I’ll be sleeping with for the next six months is my wife.”
Panic spurted at the back of her throat. Upon meeting her for the first time, he’d kissed her hand—how had she not considered that his old-fashioned streak didn’t end there?