Authors: Sara Arden
Sometimes the only way to forgiveness is sin...
Sean Dryden—the superhot all-American golden boy—has always gotten under Kentucky Lee’s skin. She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in love with the Special Ops Aviation pilot...even when he got engaged to her best friend. What Kentucky never knew is that Sean broke it off with Lynnie just a week before she died.
Something has come apart in Sean—too many missions, too much loss. Only Kentucky seems to understand him...and the undercurrent running between them is tangible. That need to touch and taste—to remind themselves they’re still alive. Can the fire in her warm his frozen heart?
“Do you want to feel, or do you want to forget?”
Kentucky’s touch was still soothing, but it made Sean burn hotter, too. “Because after the orgasm is over, you realize those things you were hiding from never left.”
“Wasn’t this what you wanted when you brought me out here?” He lifted his head and met her eyes. “If it’s not, tell me to stop and we’ll forget this ever happened.”
Her eyes were luminous and open. She wanted him, but she wanted more than what he was offering her.
“I don’t want to forget it happened, and I especially don’t want you to forget I happened.”
He pushed her down in the sand and pressed her beneath him. Color was high in her cheeks and her eyes glittered in the firelight. Her arms twined around his neck. She obviously didn’t give a damn they were out in the open, with her hair fanned out in the sand.
“Live a little.” His mouth descended toward hers oh-so-slowly...
I hope you enjoy reading about Sean and Kentucky. Like all my characters, they’re dear to my heart and their road to happily-ever-after is a bumpy one. But isn’t that what makes it so worth it? It makes the light at the end of the darkness so much brighter and that much warmer.
Wishing you your own happily-ever-after, and with much love,
lives in a small Kansas
town with her husband, two children, a horse, two cats and a bunny. She started
reading romance at a young age, and by the time she entered high school, aced
world history without ever cracking her textbook because of all the historicals
she’d read. Besides reading, Sara enjoys travel, the smell of old books, tea and
pedicures. She loves to hear from her readers.
Also available from Sara Arden and
Return to Glory
A Glorious Christmas
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For the babybats
under her breath as she watched a sniping pack of carnivorous prowling she-wolves gather around the newly single Special Operations pilot, Sean Dryden. She knew what they were all thinking as they dabbed artfully at their conveniently waterproof eyeliner and made the appropriate sounds of condolence and grief. All talking about what a shame it was that Lynnie James was gone.
She knew each one of them wondered how soon was too soon to offer him comfort of another sort in hopes of catching him like a rabbit in a trap. They were all plotting against one other like corrupt Roman senators.
It wasn’t a surprise that anyone would want him. He was, in a word, beautiful. He was all-American Boy Scout perfection. Kentucky didn’t blame them for being attracted to him. Sean Dryden was everyone’s type. Kentucky could only hope none of them would be stupid enough to make a move here. Especially where she could see. Kentucky would end up a headline in the town rag for causing a scene at the James funeral.
Lynnie James had been her best friend and Sean’s fiancée. This potluck in the Saint Paul Lutheran Church basement consisting of fallout-shelter green-bean casserole, macaroni slathered in “processed cheese food” and bacon bits like gravel was all in her honor. Which was rather kind of terrible. Kentucky hoped that when she left this world, people would do something more interesting, something that reflected the person she was.
Green-bean casserole didn’t begin to sum up the beautiful soul that was Lynnie James. No one really could.
Kentucky didn’t begrudge them their grieving rituals or their terrible choices of potluck dishes. It was just that she didn’t belong. She never had. While the others could hug each other, remember the good times with the all-American girl who made life in small-town Winchester, Kansas, worth living, Kentucky didn’t have that.
Not with anyone but Lynnie.
Her best friend had been the only one who really saw her. Not just the party girl who liked fast boys and faster cars—the rebel without a cause. Lynnie had seen everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—and loved her unconditionally. Lynnie had always been on her side.
Kentucky missed her for all those reasons and more.
She caught Sean’s eye and watched as he extracted himself from the fray of she-wolves and headed straight for her. She could feel the women glaring hot enough to burn through to her bones. But that was the same way they’d looked at her in high school. It bothered her even less now than it did then. She knew who she was, knew her own worth.
He embraced her. “You look beautiful. I never thought I’d see you in a dress.”
She was suddenly aware of the black dress, the way it clung to her, and the knowledge that Sean’s eyes had been on her and liked it. She flushed, her face hot. Kentucky hated that she had this reaction. She felt like a first-class traitor having this reaction to Sean, here of all places.
“Well, it is Lynnie’s funeral. What else would I do?” She fumbled with her hands and then smoothed them down the sides of her dress. It was too tight, a lace prison that caged her breath so she could inhale only shallowly.
His brown eyes were full of some emotion that was more than grief but that she couldn’t name. “You know Lynnie wouldn’t have cared what you wore.”
It was then with the sadness etched on his face that she realized what was in the depths of his eyes: guilt. “Sean, what happened—” she paused, searching for the right thing to say “—it wasn’t your fault. The roads were icy. There’s nothing that you could’ve done. It was black ice.”
He looked away from her and for a moment it seemed as if he’d frozen in place. Then when he met her gaze again, she saw so much pain it was suffocating. “There’s so much you don’t know.”
She reached out and grabbed his shoulders. “I know all I need to know. I know that Lynnie loved you and I know that you loved her. That’s all that matters.”
She hated being here, enduring other people and their grief. Not Sean so much as the acquaintances who didn’t really know Lynnie. The acquaintances who knew only Lynnie James the former cheerleader who was going to be a kindergarten teacher and marry her high school sweetheart.
How Kentucky’s heart hurt for him. He seemed so lost, so broken and oh-so alone. She hugged him again. She wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to be lost. The gesture was meant to be comforting, and she couldn’t help but feel guilty for enjoying the sensation of being locked in his arms for just a moment.
She was supposed to be offering him support, but she took strength and safety from his embrace. It reminded her that even though Lynnie was gone, she wasn’t alone. Or maybe they were just alone together.
“She loved you, too, Kentucky. So much that I know she wouldn’t want you to stay here. She’d know you were ready to jump out of your own skin. She’d tell you to run and she’d probably even cover for you.” He released her from the hug and she reluctantly stepped back from him.
Lynnie had known her inside and out. She’d been the best of friends. Hell, how she missed her. Kentucky smiled softly. “But funerals aren’t really for the dead, though, are they? They’re for the living.” She looked at him pointedly.
“You don’t have to stay for me.” Sean scrubbed a hand over his face. “The sooner I can get out of here, the better. It’s just too much, you know?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “I get it. I really do.”
Sean studied her for a moment. “I know you do.” He grabbed her and hugged her again, but this time it was hard and quick. “You meant the world to Lynnie.” He released her. “And you mean a lot to me. Don’t be a stranger.”
what she was: a stranger.
Kentucky didn’t see or hear anything from Sean Dryden until July, seven months after they said goodbye to the woman they loved.
He’d gone back to his assignment and didn’t email or answer her letters. Not even when she sent him the little notebook of poetry Lynnie had written about him in middle school.
She didn’t know what she expected from him. What was there to say?
Kentucky hoped he was okay, he was safe, and he was processing as best he could. Most important, she hoped he’d realized that Lynnie’s death wasn’t his fault.
She thought about them a lot. The group, the way they used to be. Herself, Lynnie, Sean, Eric and Rachel. But now Lynnie’s brother, Eric, was with Rachel. That wasn’t really a surprise either. They’d been best friends since they were in diapers. It was kind of a natural progression.
Kentucky was happy for them, but there was still an empty place inside her where Lynnie used to be.
And Sean, God, Sean.
She shook her head at her own train of thought, as if that would shake him out of the spot he occupied in her brain. He didn’t belong there, never had. Yet still, he had his own room in her head. He always had. She’d never wanted to take anything from Lynnie, but she couldn’t help the way she wanted Sean Dryden.
She’d dreamed about him the way little girls do members of boy bands. Until it had turned to something earthier in her teens. Something more carnal. He had been her ultimate fantasy. She’d played scenarios out in her head all the time then. Scenarios that involved meeting him under the bleachers after football practice to make out. Or playing Seven in Heaven or Truth or Dare at some party. But Seven in Heaven had been her favorite for a while. If they were locked in the dark together for seven minutes, they were expected to make out. He’d kiss her, touch her, and she’d get to touch him and it would all be okay because it was just a game.
She’d even dreamed that Lynnie would break it off with him and he’d come to her for solace. Sometimes that one made her hate herself because she was wishing to break something that could never be broken or
never be broken for her own gain.
Kentucky rationalized it by saying that it was only in her head. She never acted on it. Never actively wished for bad things. It was more of a passive sort of wishing. Not that it was any better, but it helped her sleep at night in those first years, when she’d wanted him so much she could taste it.
When they’d gotten engaged, Lynnie and Sean, she’d known the rightness of it. Accepted it. She’d managed to stop thinking about him every day. But sometimes she still felt that familiar tug in her belly, the tingle between her legs when his hand would brush hers, or she could feel the heat of his body when he sat next to her.
She knew it was pathetic, but that didn’t stop her.
Now Lynnie was gone, and in a way, she guessed Sean was, too.
It was late on a sticky July afternoon when Kentucky Lee was sure the moonshine cherries she’d been eating while hanging out on the deck of the Shooting Star Honky-Tonk had conjured a ghost.
Sean Dryden, looking as hollow and broken as he had the day of Lynnie’s funeral, sat down in the chair next to her. Its old rusted metal base creaked under his weight, but he didn’t seem to notice. A day’s growth of beard shadowed his handsome face. He had a bottle of her locally sourced—homemade—shine in his hand.
He looked like hell.
And still, he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen in real life.
She offered him a cherry and he offered her a sip of shine.
“I didn’t think that was your speed.” Kentucky pointed her chin at the moonshine.
“It’s not really, but it’s good for what ails you. Isn’t that what your grandmother used to say?”
“She sure did.” Kentucky nodded.
“I like that about you.”
“What?” She looked up.
“No small talk. No accusations wondering why I’m not out playing flyboy.” He said this last bit derisively.
“Playing flyboy? I think what you do is a little more important than that.” As a special ops pilot, it was his job to get operatives in and out of war zones. To move undetected through enemy airspace and ensure the safety of his team and everyone aboard his Black Hawk.
And to destroy whatever operational targets had been provided.
“That’s just it. You’re the only one.”
“I’m sure that’s not the case.” Everyone was mostly in awe of what he did, at least the parts he could tell people about.
“You’d be surprised.”
At the expression on his face, she was reminded of the day of the funeral and all the she-wolves looking to take him down like prey. “So why are you home?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Mental health days.”
“You only got a few days before. It was inhumane. I’m glad you got some more time.” There was no way he could’ve been expected to deal with his loss in the week he’d been given at home before he’d had to return to duty.
“I’d have rather spent it on a beach somewhere. That would be some real mental health recuperation.” He took another swig of shine.
He was so hard, so angry. She couldn’t blame him for it either. Kentucky knew she would be, too.
They passed the bottle back and forth between them a couple of times and sat in a companionable silence for a long moment.
She tried not to think about the heat that burned her fingers when their hands brushed as he handed her the bottle. Or that his firm mouth had been where her lips were, that it was almost like a kiss. It was the closest she’d ever get to something like that with a guy like him.
Guilt surged and washed over her desire, tamping it down to some small, inconsequential thing. But the flame still burned, flickered like a newly lit candle. Kentucky exhaled heavily.
“I just can’t do it.” He tossed back some more moonshine. “It’s stifling here.”
She turned to look at him. The chiseled ridge of his clenched jaw, the stiff set to his broad shoulders, the tension that thrummed through him like a live wire. Kentucky wished she could ease his pain.
And her own.
“I know, right?” She pursed her lips. “I’ve never been like them. Like you.”
“Me?” Sean pushed the bottle toward her. “What does that mean?”
“You know, the kind who fits in.” She shrugged.
“You fit in more than you know. You don’t have to hide who you are to be special, Kentucky.”
Part of her wanted to argue with him, to deny any of the more tender things that could hurt her. But this had been part of her fantasies. That he always knew who she was.
And wanted her anyway.
She swallowed. “Yeah, well, you know.” Great. That sentence didn’t even make any sense. Kentucky shrugged again. “I can do that, too. Shine a light on things you’d rather not see. Like Lynnie’s death.” She fixed him with a hard stare. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He looked away from her. “Yes, it was. There are things you don’t know, Kentucky.”
“Like what? Like you made the road slick? You made her brakes fail? It was a terrible accident that could’ve happened to any of us.” Of course he felt guilty because he hadn’t been here. Logic wouldn’t fix that for him. Only he could make it right in his own head.
“I can’t talk about it.” His stare was focused somewhere out on the horizon. Somewhere he could be that wasn’t here, in this place, without Lynnie. Or that was what she imagined.
She pursed her lips again, feeling them go tight and thin. “You don’t have to. I think I’ve had enough of talking. At least talking about death. Because we’re still here. We’re still alive.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Kentucky mustered up a grin. “I guess I don’t know about you, but
am.” This was what she’d been waiting for. Some grand spark of inspiration, a way to honor Lynnie’s life that represented who she was. Not the Saint Paul Lutheran Ladies Auxiliary version. Lynnie had always been so vital. Her life was like a star, something bright and sparkling.
“Come on.” She held out her hand as she stood. “Let’s get out of here.”
Sean cocked his head to the side and seemed to debate for a long moment. “Screw it.” He took her hand and hopped up to his feet. “Where are we going?”
“Come with me and find out.” She dragged him behind her toward the back of the property, his warm fingers closed around hers.
She wouldn’t think about how good it felt to hold his hand, to have some solid anchor keeping her in the moment. As she drew him deeper into the wooded area, he paused.
“Mossy Rock? You can’t be serious.”
“I’m so serious right now.” She tugged his hand and he followed. “Lynnie loved it out here. Do you remember?”
“Yeah.” His voice was tight with emotion.
Mossy Rock was a place right out of a teen drama. It was the weekend place for Winchester teens in the summer and early fall before the air turned cold and sharp. Mossy Rock was like a backwoods waterslide right into Sutter’s Pond.
It was known for camping, the occasional kegger, bonfires and long summer days spent in the water floating around on inner tubes and sunning on the grass around the pond.
She stopped just at the edge of the rock. “Are you in?”
“I’m not sliding down that rock, Kentucky.” His voice sounded like some sitcom dad, faux stern.
“Then I guess I’m going to leave you here by yourself. Sucks for you.” She pulled off her boots and arched a brow. Kentucky knew that all she had to do was basically dare him to do it and he’d be in the water right after her.
“Not going to happen.”
“Chicken.” She started peeling off her jeans. She tried not to think about her bare legs or to wonder if he’d look, wonder if she wanted him to look.
Or what he’d look like naked.
“I’m not going to do something just because you— What are you doing?” He watched her slide the denim down her legs and her face heated.
“What, did you think I was going to slide down that rock in my clothes? No way.” She’d be in nothing but her underwear. She rationalized that it was the same as wearing a bikini. Nothing less was covered.
He chuckled. “You’re still that same wild creature you’ve always been.”
She met his gaze. “Always and forever.” Kentucky meant to sound lighthearted, but it ended up sounding more like a confession. But that wasn’t anything he didn’t already know. “And I’m not the only one. You may be a Boy Scout, Sean Dryden, but you don’t get to be a special ops pilot by sitting on the sidelines.” She knew that spark was still in him, that fire. It just needed to be rekindled.
“Next you’re going to say to live a little. Am I right?” He shook his head. “Hell, I think you said those exact words to me last time we were all here.” Sean pointed to the top of Mossy Rock. “It was me, you, Lynnie, Eric and Rachel the weekend before graduation. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to K-State or enlisting.”
She smiled at him. “And Lynnie said you were her hero no matter what you chose.”
Shadows of emotion fell across his face. “But you, you told me live a little.”
“And are you?” Had he really enlisted because she’d told him to? That was insane. No one made life choices on an offhand comment made by the one in the group most likely to leave a good-looking corpse.
“I think I meant to,” Sean answered.
“So what are you doing? Come on.” She pulled her shirt off and slid down Mossy Rock into Sutter’s Pond. Things were getting too heavy again, too hot. Kentucky was intently aware of his eyes and everything his gaze touched. Like the sun stretching out rays of heat all down her skin.
She squeaked as the cool water enveloped her and she stayed beneath the dark surface for a time, the moment frozen, her feelings frozen. Under the water, she didn’t have to think about losing Lynnie.
Under the water, she didn’t have to think about Sean.
All she had to do was float. The weight of the water both pushed her down and held her suspended at the same time, or so it seemed to her. It was this strange sensation of nonbeing. But she only stayed there like a movie on pause. She didn’t want to stop feeling; she didn’t want to be frozen forever. She wanted a second where she didn’t have to do anything but float; then she could hit Play on the world again.
She let everything crash back into her as she surfaced. Her loss, her need, her desire and her hope. Her hope that she could cram everything she wanted to feel and experience into this life. It was over much too quickly, like fireworks.
He splashed into the water behind her.
Why had she thought this was a good idea again? Kentucky had only wanted to take his mind off their pain. But her mind was on something else altogether. She turned around to face him and he stood there bare chested like a freshwater Poseidon.
Sean scrubbed his hand over his face and pushed away the droplets of water. He grinned. His biceps bulged, the veins in his forearms raised under his tanned skin. She wanted to touch it, trace those lines up his arm, close her hands around his shoulders and pull him down to— She wouldn’t think about that now. She’d let herself have that fantasy when she was alone in the dark and pretending her own fingers were his.
She wouldn’t think about standing there in her wet bra and panties or the way the water slid down over the hard lines of his face, the sheen of water on his skin or the fact that he was wearing nothing but his issued boxer briefs, which molded to his body... Nope. Wasn’t going to think about it at all. Or the way he seemed to be looking at the lace that cupped her breasts. This could only lead to regret.
Not for her, but for him. He was hurting now and looking for something to stanch the pain. What better way than to get lost in another person? Her skin, her touch, her scent...that contact pushing away all the darkness, quieting the sadness, if only for a time.
But he’d feel guilty for it later—she knew that.
But if he kept looking at her that way, she was going to take him up on it. She’d wanted him for so long, and she didn’t do things like regret. Life was too fleeting. They were both still breathing and as much as she loved Lynnie, she was gone and she wasn’t coming back.