Authors: L.J. Wilson
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2015 by L.J. Wilson
Written by L. J. Wilson
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Seven Years Earlier
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking it’s beautiful out here.” Ruby leaned left, her fingers paddling through the lake’s supple current.
I’m thinking I’d rather be touching you…
“This can just be a sunset rowboat ride on Butterfield Lake. You know that, right?”
That’s why it’s not going to be, Aaron Clairmont... Not even close…
Ruby Vasquez was twenty, the oldest virgin she knew. Way older than her best friend, Tandy, who’d done it back in the tenth grade. “What are you waiting for?” Tandy would ask. “You’re not even that much of a good Catholic girl.” Tandy liked to tease about this and the town’s ongoing wager: “Name one guy who hasn’t lost twenty bucks betting he’d be the first to bed Ruby Vasquez.”
The thought echoed and Ruby admired the man pulling the oars.
Tandy, we have a winner…
There were patchy sweat marks on Aaron’s snug T-shirt, the kind of fit that made you look. It was a three-mile sail to the east end of Butterfield Lake. He wouldn’t let her touch an oar. Between acts of gallantry like this, it was never
Ruby had been waiting for, but
. It began with a fluttery feeling—Ruby wanted to know more about the second-eldest Clairmont brother. But the sensation also served as a warning, reminding her about the longshot odds of fairytale endings. Thanks to Tandy’s train wreck of a love life, Ruby had witnessed romantic disaster. She’d seen it happen to her own father. Ruby’s mother, Marcela, ran off when Ruby was eight, devastating Dante Vasquez, who was the good Catholic.
So Ruby had waited, wanting to see where those fluttery feelings went. Over time, the relationship had grown. It had even gotten pissed off now and again. Aaron could be aloof. Not every question about him came with a straight answer. Still, for Ruby, the feeling intensified.
Today Aaron wore a backward ball cap and reflective sunglasses—Ruby caught a glimpse of herself in the lenses. She thought she’d hit the mark on sexy, wearing a halter top and denim shorts. A pair of thick-soled Keds grounded the look. Her gaze drifted, concentrating on the rest of Aaron. The ball cap and sunglasses framed a well-defined nose and square jaw. But it matched Aaron, all of him a hard mix of finely proportioned, olive-toned man and muscle.
wasn’t quite the given family name, and his Mediterranean heritage made Aaron the
guy, though not this day. Today he was stubble-free.
His clean-shaven face was the second thing Ruby noticed when he picked her up. The first was a nervous edge—it was so
Aaron. But their destination probably had something to do with that. Mayor Vasquez had been oblivious to any plan, preoccupied with Nickel Springs’ matters. Ruby offered the expected peck on his cheek. Aaron said something about not getting her home too late. Dante Vasquez stopped his phone conversation long enough to say, “I trust you, Aaron.”
As they got in the car, he said, “I’ve never lied to the mayor when it comes to his daughter. Fine line, but I think I’m still on the side of truth.”
Unlike Ruby’s father, Tandy was privy to the details. Days before, the two girls sat on Tandy’s bed where Ruby blurted out her secret— “I’m going to sleep with Aaron... on Friday. This Friday.”
Painting her nails, Tandy froze in mid-stroke. “Aaron...” she’d said, her gaze rising. “Clairmont?” Then she smiled. “Careful, Rube, he’s not what you want. The
Tribe of Five
, they’re not the marrying kind. Something off in the DNA. Five kids and the parents never even tied the knot! But hey…” she paused to sip her rum and Coke, “I’ll be around next week when he’s not.”
Ruby had folded her arms, challenging Tandy. “And just where do you think Aaron will be?”
“In Vegas,” Tandy had said, swiping red lacquer over a pinky nail. “Fucking a showgirl and spending his virgin-lottery win.”
The snarky remark wasn’t totally out of left field. Tandy was right about the Clairmont rep. But that didn’t mean she was right about Aaron. She couldn’t be. The boat moved along, and so did Ruby’s thoughts.
“What are you thinking now?” Aaron asked, pulling back the oars.
“What makes you say I’m thinking anything different?”
“Because you looked happy when you said it was beautiful out here. Now, not so much.”
Ruby sat up tall and breathed the kind of breath that cleared cobwebs. He knew her so well. She relaxed. “I was thinking about this,” she said, nudging a blue, polka-dot Ked at a tarp-covered bundle. It put a chaperone-size gap between them. “I thought today, of all days, we’d be closer. Maybe even on land.”
“We’re about to fix that.” Aaron’s chin, divot included, motioned over his shoulder. Ruby leaned to get a better look. There was a cove and the boat glided in past tall reeds. Aaron jumped out into shin-deep water and pulled the vessel ashore. Then he offered Ruby his hand.
“Aaron, what is this place?” she said, taking in the view.
“Welcome to the Rose Arch Inn.” A muscular arm stretched toward the vista. “It was the honeymoon hot spot back in the 1970’s. The inn is beat, not even safe to go inside. But it’s a beautiful piece of property. I thought it was kind of… us.”
In front of them was a sandy shore that led to a grassy knoll. “Beautiful ruins,” Ruby said, surveying a gentle slope that bordered the defunct inn. Dilapidated and boarded up, she could imagine the appeal—a romantic haven in rural Chisholm County, upstate New York. “How did you know about it?”
“Years ago, my father… Pop was the overseer, even after the Rose Arch went out of business.”
Ruby took a turn around the beach and spotted a neatly mowed swatch of grass. She walked toward it. “Well, I don’t know how that happened…” She turned back. “You did this.”
Aaron’s broad shoulders shifted. “When you said… Well, when you told me
,” he said, arms wrapping around her from behind, “is what you want, did you really think I was going to let it happen at my house—with my brothers and sister wandering out… or worse, in?”
Damn, when Tandy hears about this…
Ruby leaned into his hard body. She felt denim jeans strain against her shorts, his pent-up desire pressing into her. A nudge of guilt pushed in too, Ruby aware of how patiently Aaron had waited. “I didn’t think about
. I was more focused on us.”
Aaron turned her in his arms. “I never worry about
. So I wanted to make sure the where would be worth remembering, even years from now.”
Guilt melted into sweet expectation.
“Although I do think I’m the first person to cross Butterfield Lake with a lawn mower in their boat.”
“Sorry I missed that.” Ruby smiled, watching Aaron turn the covert setting into a romantic oasis. There were blankets and a lantern and music. Nearby, she spied a neatly stashed pile of firewood and watched as Aaron turned it into a crackling fire. He returned to the boat, and her eyes widened as comfort items continued to come ashore, including a cooler. Normally, it would be packed with beer or the fizzy wine coolers she liked. The pink ones with shiny gold labels. Tonight the cooler held a bottle of champagne. Ruby couldn’t remember if she’d ever had champagne.
Aaron caught her nervous glance. “If champagne is too over the top, your usual’s at the bottom.”
Ruby’s jaw dropped another notch.
“And no, I’m not that smooth. Honor sent the champagne.”
“Did she?” she said, seeing a brimming picnic basket.
Aaron set the basket next to the romantic vignette. He returned to Ruby, taking her hands in his. “I wanted perfect. Perfect meant my food contribution was to ask my sister. Honor came up with the whole basket. Everything. Right down to some fancy French dish she said would travel well.”
“So does she know…?”
Aaron shook his head. “Just a picnic, that’s all.”
Ruby nodded, a little relieved. Aaron was tight with his brothers and sister—the
Tribe of Five.
Of course, right now, there didn’t seem to be anybody on planet Earth but the two of them. Ruby stared at his prep work, which was stunning and appreciated. Aaron held on tighter and Ruby tried to settle the flutter. Could this be as perfect as it seemed? Who gets it right on the first try—or with the first guy?
Aaron disrupted the thought, moving them toward the blankets. They kicked off their shoes and he flipped the ball cap Frisbee style. The sunglasses followed. His eyes, they always nudged that flutter toward out of control. They were like coming across shiny sea glass on a heated day, a misty, sexy shade of green. The genetic fallout, she guessed, from parents at near opposite ends of the color wheel. Ruby couldn’t resist kissing him hard. “I hope Honor didn’t make anything that spoils.”
“Tell me you’re thinking about food.”
No, she definitely wasn’t. She was thinking about the rest of her life. Ruby read that once, how girls… women projected the future onto men, and men just projected into the moment. But that wasn’t Aaron. With that in mind, Ruby tugged at Aaron’s shirt, which did move fast over his head. A year ago, their relationship was no more than polite hellos, glances Ruby stole of a shirtless Aaron painting the Vasquez house. It was one of several jobs he held. He never spoke about his other jobs in detail—like his future was a secret.
Right now, Ruby was fine with future secrets. She ran her fingers over muscular shoulders and Aaron’s taut stomach. As she did, Ruby remembered when touching Aaron was a fantasy. He was six years older, making a college girl’s emotions feel more like a crush. With the paint job complete, Aaron had asked Ruby to meet him by the garage. She thought he’d seen through her, and Ruby was certain he wanted to say, “I get it, kid. I’m flattered. But I’m a few light years beyond what you’re offering…”
It had sounded more like “Whatever guy gets that smile every day, I hope he knows he’s damn lucky. I hope he treats you damn good.” Having trudged miserably out to the garage, Ruby almost asked Aaron to repeat what he’d really said. There was no everyday guy, and Ruby recovered by telling Aaron as much. When she’d told the story to Tandy, her reaction was disbelief: “What do you plan on doing with him, Rube?” She’d stared at Tandy, who rolled her eyes. “I mean, I doubt Aaron Clairmont bowls or is willing to show up at Daddy’s house for Sunday dinner.”
Actually, he’d done both. Of course, now Aaron was doing something that came more naturally, kissing Ruby, which was familiar and intense. But even that was different. Instead of an evening’s end, it felt like a beginning. Although Aaron’s rep said otherwise, things hadn’t progressed much past that. This had been at Aaron’s insistence. What was she comfortable with? How did she want this to work? At first Ruby didn’t know how to respond—the words, the terms, the limits—and Aaron said that was enough answer for him.
Tonight there was the same gentleness to Aaron’s touch, but the limits were gone. He unknotted the back of the halter-top, his mouth moving deftly over Ruby’s neck, her shoulders. If there was hesitation, it belonged to the sun, which was taking its sweet time setting. Firelight flickered, illuminating the moment as the simple fabric fell away. Aaron’s gaze caught on the white lacy bra. Ruby felt her cheeks redden. “I figured white something was appropriate.” Her own gaze slid to his fingers, which rode the waistband of her shorts. “The panties match. Kind of silly, huh?”
“Kind of perfect.” Aaron’s mouth moved downward and so did his hands, permission granted and encouraged as the shorts came off.
While Ruby suspected “
he had this
,” the eager roar she’d come ashore with began to fade. Fears about clumsy fumbling and inexperience seeped into her head. What if he was disappointed? What if everything else worked and this… this thing that was such a fixation for the world was a total dud? The kissing went on, the touching a prelude, and Ruby’s worries began to evaporate, like raindrops on a sizzling surface. He was confident enough for both of them, assuring Ruby that clumsy and fumbling would not happen. Aaron’s hands moved fluidly over Ruby’s skin, and the flutter-ignited sensations she could barely describe. It was a good thing she didn’t have to detail them, her mouth too busy with Aaron’s. Ruby boldly reached for his belt buckle… then a button… then a zipper.
If desire could be captured in a body part, Aaron could be the poster boy for perfected hard-ons. Moments later, he was ready for skinny-dipping. But swimming wasn’t on his mind. Wondering what did come next, Ruby plucked at her bra strap. “Don’t you… um, want this off? I laughed when I tried it on. I figured I wore it longer in the fitting room than I would when we got to… here.” Ruby’s dark eyes danced around a secluded setting she couldn’t have imagined—or maybe she could, which was why she’d waited for exactly this man.
Aaron kissed her again, hard. The kind of kiss that could take a girl right off her feet, and it did, the two of them sinking onto the layers of blankets. “I’m pacing myself. I, um… I hope you didn’t make other plans.”
“Not a one,” she said, her fingers stroking the ropey muscle of his arm. His bare chest against her body—it made Ruby wonder who the hell invented clothes. She didn’t want this moment, or any other with him, to end.