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Authors: Laura Moore

Once Touched (24 page)

BOOK: Once Touched
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“Yes,” she said quietly. “Because Hades tricked her into eating the pomegranate, she was forced to remain with him in the underworld for part of the year.”

“Yeah. So there I was cruising past this orchard and thinking that pomegranates, like poppies, were the perfect symbol for this place because few other places I'd visited made me think of hell and death as much. And wasn't that fucking prescient?” His laugh was hollow.

He felt her head move and knew that she was pressing a kiss into his shoulder. Ironically, the spot was centimeters away from his scar. His narrative—his confession—was making his wound ache as if his flesh and ligaments were freshly torn and bloody.

Whoever said time heals all wounds hadn't been to war.

He couldn't stop now, though.

“We were driving by a cluster of houses, set back a little ways from the road. We'd just rolled past, back to a landscape of gravel and dusty earth, when I saw it: a red rubber ball about the size of soccer ball bouncing on the hard ground, its path leading directly into the road. Ten feet behind the ball, a little boy was running to catch it.

“The men saw it, too. Casey reacted as anyone would, easing his foot off the gas. But then we heard the shout, and it wasn't just a ‘Stay the fuck away from the road, kid, a car's coming!' kind of yell but a scream of sheer terror because the little boy was running fast, getting too close to the ball…to the road.

“The four of us realized in that instant what the scream meant. No time to react—for Casey to throw the wheel, slam on the brakes, or do anything. There wasn't even time to pray.

“The IED blast sent the truck into the air like some giant had kicked it. I remember flying even farther, then hitting the ground and feeling as if my body had been ripped in two. From where I lay I could see twisted hunks of metal through the choking smoke. I could make out bodies, blood staining the camo a dark red and seeping into the dirt underneath them. The others didn't move, and already I knew that I was alive and they weren't. I must've passed out. When I came to, there were two medics hovering over me—Hasan had called the base when we didn't show and the major had sent out a search party for us.

“That's the nightmare that torments me in my sleep, but when I wake up it's worse. Because then I know that if not for me, those other men might still be alive. Did I mention that Casey Logar wasn't just up for promotion? He was also engaged, his fiancée seven months pregnant.”

—

Quinn choked back her tears. If she'd thought she loved Ethan before, that emotion seemed paltry now that she'd heard his story, knew what he'd suffered and the guilt he carried. Such a heavy load. Her heart ached for him, and she wished somehow he could see himself through her eyes rather than his own damning ones.

When she lifted her cheek from where it rested against his shoulder blade she felt him stiffen as if preparing himself for a blow or the condemnation he doubtless expected to see in her gaze.

Her hands slipped under his flannel shirt and with her flattened palms she urged him to turn toward her. A touch of gray spilled through the window, illuminating his face. She was grateful for the faint but growing light. His expression was stern. Guarded. When a man revealed so much pain, how could he not wish to protect himself while he was at his most vulnerable?

She hoped her words might do the same as the creeping dawn and chase the darkness from his soul.

“I love you, Ethan.” Her voice was quiet and clear. Sensing that anything else she said in an effort to absolve him of his supposed crimes would be met with fierce resistance, she acted, covering his mouth with hers, laying her palms against his chest, her right one absorbing the heavy thud of his heart.

In a flash, the kiss turned fierce, tongues tangling and lips clinging with desperate hunger and need.

His hands moved like quicksilver over her, touching all the secret places he alone had discovered and knew would leave her gasping as desire rocked her. Before he could wreak total havoc, she twisted, pushing him down on the rumpled sheet. Straddling his hips, she pinned him.

Beneath her, the heated steel of his erection burned. She sank lower, riding it, as she kissed her way down the taut column of his neck to the hollow located at the base of his throat. Scooting back, she continued her erotic journey, laving the dark discs of his nipples, the stark ridges of his abdomen while her fingers busied themselves, tugging at his zipper and then shoving his jeans down. Freed, he sprang into her waiting hands. Pulsed as her lips touched his bulbous head.

“Quinn, oh God—” His words ended on a groan of agonized pleasure as her tongue licked him in a slow sweep.

Opening her mouth, she took him deep. She'd come to love this, the taste of him, an extraordinary and unique blend of salt and tangy spice, the essence of the male animal. She loved the urgency she was able to rouse in him as she alternately lapped and sucked, his fingers curling in her hair, his tendons standing ropelike against the strong column of his neck, his hips bucking under her as his control slipped. The pleasure stark on his face as she quickened her pace and her hands joined in caressing him, pumping and squeezing.

She knew he was close, and heat pulsed urgently inside her. When his fingers stayed her, she looked up, questioning.

“I need you to take me inside and feel you come with me. It's how I find peace.”

The unvarnished honesty of his request had her blinking back fresh tears.

Quick work was made of the condom. Rising onto her knees, she positioned him at the entrance to her core and sank down, taking him inch by inch, reveling in the sensation of him filling her. Their eyes locked as he gripped her hips and began to move, his thrusts as tight and controlled as a great engine gathering steam. She followed him, answering his thrusts with a rolling grind of her hips as their gasps and whispers filled the air. Together they traveled to a magic place far from the shadows that hovered.

S
TANDING IN A
bridal shop in front of one of those nasty three-way mirrors, dressed in a floor-length satin gown while a woman with a mouthful of very sharp pins knelt inches away from her butt, wasn't exactly Quinn's idea of a rockin' good time. Thank God for great soon-to-be sisters-in-law, crisp champagne, and a bridesmaid's dress that even Quinn had to admit was stunning—not that Tess, Italian beauty and event planner extraordinaire, would ever choose anything ugly.

Mia, who was also wearing her bridesmaid's dress, was grinning. “Wow. Just wow. Tess, you have some kind of crazy talent. Not every woman could find bridesmaids' dresses that, A, are this gorgeous, and B, can make the three of us look equally fantastic. Don't you agree, Anna?”

Anna Vecchio, not to be left out of all the San Francisco fun, had arranged to have her fitting done simultaneously in New York. She twirled in the rectangular screen of Tess's iPad, showing off her dress, her dark hair flowing out behind her. “It's beautiful. And we do look amazing. I love the rosy gold color on the two of you.
Brava, cara,
” she said and then launched into rapid-fire Italian that had Tess laughing and swiping at her eyes.

“Translation, please,” Quinn said.

Tess gave a little hiccup and swiped at her eyes. “Anna was just saying that she knew there'd been a reason why she let me leave New York. The reward was seeing me happier and more beautiful than she had ever imagined. And that's all because of you and your family, Quinn,” she said.

“Aw,” Quinn said, and risked the seamstress's wrath by going over and hugging Tess. “You're not so bad yourself, city girl.”

“I also told Tess that it was totally worth losing her if it meant my restaurant's cellar would be stocked with the finest California pinot noir,” Anna said.

“The jury's still out on how the few barrels we saved will mature, but thanks for the vote of confidence,” Mia said.

Quinn plucked two more glasses of champagne off the silver tray, passed them to her friends, and then took one herself. Directing her attention to Anna, still framed in the iPad screen, she asked, “Anna, is your glass full?” At Anna's nod she continued. “Then I propose a toast to Tess, who's not only the anti-bridezilla but is also the rare and generous woman in having chosen gorgeous dresses for her bridesmaids rather than cringe-inducing horrors—not that you sell those here,” she said with an extra-bright smile for the store's manager. “To the future Tess Casari Knowles.”

Glasses were clinked and then drained, and then Quinn and Mia stood docilely while the two seamstresses made their final pinnings.

“So I guess this fitting means we'll have to keep on the straight and narrow for the remainder of the holiday season,” Quinn said after she'd changed back into her own skirt and silk blouse. “Too bad. Roo makes the most amazing Christmas log.”

Mia gave a pained look and glanced at her bridesmaid's dress, now back on its hanger. “Do you think I should ask to have the waist let out a little?”

From behind the heavy silver curtain of the changing room, Tess said, “Don't you dare, Mia! You looked amazing in that dress. And, Quinn, you haven't experienced real temptation until you get a whiff of my mother's panettone. I could eat one every day all December long.”

Then she stepped out from behind the curtain and Quinn and Mia both gave an “Oh!” followed by “How absolutely lovely!” and “Ward won't know what hit him.”

Anna said, “Come closer,” and then gave a happy cry.
“Bellissima!”

No translation needed for that or for the radiant smile on Tess's face.

The lace trumpet gown with its off the shoulder sleeves caressed Tess's knockout curves. The gown was a creamy white, the perfect foil for Tess's olive skin tone, dark eyes, and long brown hair. She looked elegant and beautiful and wonderfully romantic.

“It's the closest I could come to the dress my mother wore for her wedding,” Tess said. “As you can see, Mia, I don't have an inch to spare, either. What I do have, however, is a formula—a regimen, if you will—designed to keep the pounds off during the holiday season.”

“Do share,” Anna said, leaning forward.

“It's simple. For every slice of chocolate log or, in my case, enormous wedge of panettone, engage in two hours of sex.”

Quinn had just taken a sip of champagne. She spewed it out—luckily nowhere near Tess and her glorious dress. She patted herself dry while around her the others snorted in laughter.

“Seriously, I tried it this fall when I made a huge batch of penne with a sauce of tomato, cream, and five cheeses. It worked like a charm.” Tess grinned.

“Love that recipe of your mother's. The most delicious calorie bomb in existence,” Anna said. “And you didn't have to wear your crisis pants all week?”

“They remained in the closet.”

“A miracle diet.” Anna clapped. “Fantastic! I'll put it to the test with Lucas tonight. We're going out to a friend of mine's pop-up restaurant tonight. His desserts are divinely decadent.”

“Report back next week,” Tess told Anna.

“But make sure you keep the results between us. If news of Tess's miracle regimen gets out, Reid is going to be hand-feeding me cake,” Mia said. Biting her lower lip, she blushed.

“I don't see anything wrong with that picture,” Anna said. “Do you, Tess?”

Tess laughed. “Can't say I do. What else is winter for? Come to think of it, I may let Ward in on my secret routine when we get home.”

“Hello!” Quinn waved her hands. “Could you please remember that two of these men happen to be my brothers?”

For a woman dressed in a lace wedding gown, Tess's expression could only be described as wicked. “Don't tell me you and Ethan aren't up to the prescribed minutes, because I won't believe you. Not after what I interrupted yesterday afternoon.”

Before Quinn could begin to formulate a pithy response, Mia gave a very uncharacteristic whoop. “Yes! I've been wondering when the pair of you would be caught out in the open.”

“Only a matter of time,” Tess said.

“Well, hallelujah.” Mia grinned at Quinn's baleful look. “What? Of course we knew it would happen. You gave Ethan a
dog,
Quinn.”

“And who is this Ethan?” Anna interrupted.

“He's a photojournalist. Very handsome, very intense. You'll love him, Anna. He's coming to the wedding.”

“He is?” Mia asked.

“Mm-hmm.” Tess nodded. “Didn't want Quinn to be all by her lonesome.”

“You know, Tess, you're slipping a little as perfect sister-in-law-to-be.”

Tess gave an eloquent shrug. “Mia, you want the job?”

“Nope. I'd rather hear all about this much-awaited development. Ethan's a really good man, Quinn.”

Mia and Tess didn't know the half of how good a man he was. A lump formed in her throat as she remembered the raw pain in Ethan's voice while he recounted what had happened on that dusty road to Kandahar. “Yeah, he is.”

Something of what she was feeling must have shown on her face, for Tess said, “It's the real thing, huh?”

Quinn gave a small nod.

“I saw that same expression staring back at me in the mirror when I got together with Ward. A little terrified and a lot soul-deep happy. I never felt a tenth of that when I was with David.”

“David was too busy giving you emotional whiplash,” Anna said. “A selfish man to the end—even when he dressed it up as concern for you.”

Tess's first husband, David, had died from a brain tumor. But instead of telling Tess about his illness, he'd decided to keep Tess in the dark and even did his best to push her away emotionally by being deliberately cruel so she wouldn't mourn his death. A frigging lousy way to treat anyone, let alone a loved one. It was more than simply lousy. It was cowardly.

It made Quinn appreciate Ethan's courage in opening up all the more. It would have been easy for him to continue stonewalling her. Instead he'd revealed something he believed to be truly awful about himself.

“Maybe you're right, Anna,” Tess conceded. “But perhaps because of what David put me through, I can love Ward all the more and appreciate how good and strong he is and what a wonderful husband and father he'll be.” Looking at Quinn, she smiled. “I'm glad you and Ethan are together.”

“Yes, we're really happy for you,” Mia said, nodding.

“I'm looking forward to meeting Ethan when he comes to New York,” Anna said. “I'm only sad that I didn't get to loan you my nonna's lucky scarf—I'd have been three for three.”

Anna had inherited a very nice silk scarf from her grandmother and firmly believed that it was lucky. Tess and Mia had bought into the lore, and now it was talked about as if it were a talisman that brought true love.

“Tess, I'm sorry,” Anna continued. “But I have to go back to the restaurant.”

“Of course! Say hi to Rupert for me. And call me tomorrow and tell me how every dish was.”

“Prometto.”

Tess smiled. “I only wish you were coming with us.”

“We'll have our time in New York. All of you come prepared to eat, drink, and dance yourselves silly—almost as fun as marathon sex.” Blowing a kiss in their direction, Anna signed off with a jaunty
“Ciao, care mie.”

After thanking Dominique, the bridal shop's manager, and the in-house seamstresses for giving them a perfect morning and double-checking that the dresses would be shipped to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where Tess and Ward and Quinn's family had booked rooms for the wedding, Tess slipped behind the silver curtains and reemerged dressed in a navy pencil skirt and a white fitted silk blouse and the high-heel pumps she favored. An artfully knotted bright silk scarf completed the outfit. She looked nearly as glamorous as she had in her wedding dress.

“The city girl is back,” Quinn noted.

Tess laughed. “I never thought I'd admit this, but I've gotten used to the soft ground and the comfort of my cowboy boots. Still, it's fun dressing up and going out on the town with you both, isn't it? And I'm using today to get used to wearing heels on sidewalks again, so be prepared to cover a lot of ground, ladies.”

With a cheery wave to Dominique and a last round of thanks, they stepped outside. Pedestrians were bundled in wool coats and lightweight puffers, their bags bumping against their legs as they hurried along Grant Avenue. The outsides of the stores were decorated with lots of evergreens, gold and silver, and winter-wonderland-themed windows. The holiday season was in full swing in Union Square.

“I do love this season.” Tess smiled brightly. “Ready to hit the stores? We're going to go full tilt and work up an appetite so we can do justice to the lunch Anna's treating us to.”

“We'll do our best to keep up, right, Mia?” Quinn said as they walked past the hardy souls drinking their coffee and curled over their cellphones and tablets in the outside seating areas of the cafés.

“We'd be lousy bridesmaids if we didn't,” Mia replied. “I hope I find something for your dad, Quinn. He makes shopping for my uncle Thomas easy. Luckily, I was inspired when it came to finding a present for Thomas and his girlfriend, Pascale.”

“What did you get them?” Tess asked.

“I commissioned Madlon Glenn to paint a watercolor of our winery.”

“Madlon Glenn. Wait, that's the guest who helped you organize the artists' retreat at the ranch, wasn't it, Tess?” Quinn asked.

“Yes. She's so talented.”

“I think Thomas and Pascale will love the scene I bought,” Mia said. “I had it framed and it looks so beautiful.”

“That's a brilliant gift, Mia. Maybe I should contact Madlon. She might have a view of the ranch that I could give to Adele and Daniel. Hey—” Tess exclaimed suddenly. “Here's another idea. What if I ask Ethan to take a picture—”

BOOK: Once Touched
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