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Authors: Christie Ridgway

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary romance, #Fiction

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BOOK: The Love Shack
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Skye didn’t have it in her to answer anything besides
Sure
.

His next text made her laugh. Funny man. She figured he was doing it on purpose, amusing her as a detour around the awkwardness he knew she felt. It didn’t seem fair, though, that he seemed to have managed that interlude with her in his lap without losing an ounce of assurance.
Men.

“So, what does it say?” Polly demanded.

“He heard the three of us are together. Wonders if we’re girl-dancing again, and if so, would I text him the address so he can come by and watch?”

Polly leaned back so the server could slide her plate in front of her. “No dancing. Tell him we’re having a pillow fight in our underwear.”

Grinning, she did just that. Several minutes passed, long enough for her to get started on her plate of greens. When his next text arrived, she immediately opened it.

Sorry took me so long. The paramedics just left.

Alarmed, she typed back,
WHAT?

My heart stopped.

Snorting, she shared it with the other two, which gave Jane a great idea that they followed through with once their meal was finished. On the store’s home goods floor, they talked a bored salesclerk into taking cell phone photos of them bopping each other with the display pillows. The Lowell brothers were each sent a copy.

“Maybe that will get them talking to each other,” Jane said.

Skye continued to stare at her phone, frowning. The photos just snapped brought home the strong contrast between herself and her friends. Both of the other women were dressed in breezy sundresses and cute flats. Sheer lipstick brightened their mouths, and they seemed to sparkle with life. She, on the other hand, looked drab and almost unhappy in her baggy khakis and button-down shirt, fastened at the cuffs and up to the throat.

She
was
unhappy.

“Back to shopping for the perfect dresses,” Polly said. “You’re sure you don’t want something new, Skye?”

Well, of course she
wanted
something new...but could she bring herself to wear it? Glancing back at that gloomy, covered-up image of herself, she bit her lip. She’d once been a young woman who wore pretty outfits and played with her hair and makeup. She wanted to be that woman again.

“I could maybe try a few on,” she said cautiously.

Polly grabbed her elbow and hauled her to the elevator as if afraid she might change her mind. “I saw the cutest one for you when I was going through the racks.”

The other thing about shopping with friends was that they could bulldoze you into selections you’d never choose for yourself. But behind the louvered dressing room door, Skye couldn’t complain about Polly’s pick. It was as if the dress had been designed precisely for Skye Alexander of Crescent Cove.

The sleeveless, moss-green bodice was held up by thin straps. It wasn’t low-cut, but it did reveal her shoulders and collarbone—and was the exact color of her eyes. The full, knee-length skirt was of a slightly deeper green and printed with life-sized fish swimming through seaweed. A light underlayer of tulle gave it just the tiniest amount of pouf.

“Time to model,” Polly said, knocking on the wooden door.

Skye hesitated, but then flipped the lock. Her two friends crowded into the opening, their gazes assessing.

Her skin prickled, goose bumps rising over all the newly revealed flesh. “I don’t think I can do this,” she said quickly, even though she knew the cut of the dress was quite modest. Still, a sidelong glance at the mirror showed a wealth of skin that she’d kept covered for months. “Maybe it’s not me.”

Bare arms, bare shoulders, bare throat. “Or it’s so much of me,” she murmured.

“It’ll knock Gage’s socks off,” Jane said.

It was on the tip of Skye’s tongue to say he’d already seen her more exposed than this. He’d stroked her naked arms, kissed her naked shoulders, rubbed his whiskered cheek against her naked throat.

And if she’d allowed that, she thought, with a sudden sharp pang of longing, surely she could manage the dress. She wanted to appear pretty again! Normal.

Like the repainting of her kitchen and the rearranging of her living room, it would be staking a renewed claim on herself.

“I’m buying it,” she said, before she could chicken out.

As they stood in line at the checkout, Jane cleared her throat. “About Gage...”

Skye turned to her, frowning at the other woman’s serious tone. “You’re really worried about him?”

She nodded. “I trust Griffin’s instincts on this,” she said, then hesitated. “Maybe you could get him to open up.”

“Me? If he won’t talk to his twin—”

“The two of you have been so close.”

If only you knew
how
close,
Skye thought. But that was part of the problem. There was an imbalance in their relationship now. He was the issue-free, hey-anything-to-help half of their pairing.

“Griffin’s convinced something happened during Gage’s last assignment. Something he hasn’t shared with anyone.”

Skye’s hand tightened on the new dress.
Maybe not so issue-free.
“There was an interpreter he worked with—”

“No. He told us about that. It’s bigger, Skye.”

Worry continued to niggle at her as she put that together with things he’d said since returning to the cove. His sleepless nights. His desire to escape his own company. The remark he’d made to Rex while sitting beside the older man on his porch.
“I’ve not been safe from everything.”

Still, what gave her the right to disturb his secrets?

Because they festered when they went unspoken. She knew that better than anyone.

“You’ll try talking to him?” Jane asked.

It would mean Skye would have to forget her vow of distance. But she already knew she would, she thought, sighing. Gage was the man who’d run to her rescue, who saw inside her soul, who’d held her in his arms and given her pleasure she’d thought gone forever. Of course she’d do what she could for him.

Because she cared more for her friend than for the safety of her heart.

CHAPTER TEN

T
EAGUE
SETTLED
ON
THE
SMALL
couch in Polly’s living room and ran his hand over the new shirt he’d purchased for the engagement party at Tess’s place. Then he fussed with the collar and second-guessed the color. It was a pale vanilla shade, and with his luck he’d spill something on it right away. He could hear Polly moving around her bedroom and bathroom as she finished getting ready for the event—he’d been early and she’d answered the door in her robe—and he decided it wouldn’t hurt to remind her of her assignment.

“Pol,” he called out, “just elbow me if I’m staring at Tess too long, okay? I’m counting on you to prevent me from making a fool of myself.”

His best-friend-who-was-a-girl’s voice floated through her half-closed bedroom door. “How well do you really know her, Teague?”

“What?”

“Can you tell me her favorite color? Does she like musicals? Where’s the one place she wants to visit before she dies?”

Teague stood, too restless for couch cushions. Ever since that dance, holding Polly in his arms and swaying to the melody of “At Last,” he’d been unaccountably edgy, a foreign state for a man usually calm and relaxed. “Her favorite color? The red of cherry Lifesavers. Of course she likes musicals, everything from old Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald movies to that latest on Broadway. She wants to see India before she takes her last breath.”

A long silence followed. Then Polly said, “Teague, that’s me.”

He wandered to the window and watched the waves rush onto the beach, their ceaseless rhythm unable to soothe his jittery nerves. “Well, I like your answers.”

Another silence. Then Polly stuck her head out the bedroom door. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

He glanced around. Her hair was in a shiny golden fall that brushed her shoulders and trailed toward her terry-wrapped breasts. He jerked his head away, refocusing on the surf. “Why do I get the sense you don’t approve of Tess?”

“Tess herself is not the issue,” Polly said, her voice going fainter as he imagined her returning to the depths of her bedroom, “but I admit I don’t like how you’re hung up on her. She’s married.”

“We can’t help who we care about,” he grumbled.

“To a point, I get that. But I’m not going to let myself get moony over some—I don’t know—Hollywood actor or guy I just happened to glimpse in the produce section—”

“What Hollywood actor?” he demanded. “What guy in the produce section? Have you been trolling for men at the grocery store without telling me?”

A frustrated sound came from her direction. “I’m not trolling anywhere. The point is, I don’t let myself fall for someone I don’t have a chance of knowing or seeing again. Someone I don’t have a chance of building a real relationship with. If I did, or you did, you’d just be wasting your time, or...”

Turning his back on the window, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Or...what?”

“Or you’d be doing it out of self-protection. You’d be putting your feelings somewhere, with someone, who was safe. Because deep down you’d know you’re not really risking your heart.”

In Teague’s current mood, the thought was too complicated to unpack. Sighing, he cut to the chase. “You’re saying I’m never going to have her.”

Polly walked into the living room, in some red number with matching red shoes. Her favorite color. “You’re never going to have her.”

He spun back to stare out the window. “Shit.”

“Teague?” Polly asked, her voice softening. “This is not news to you. What’s the actual problem?”

His collar felt as if it were strangling him. He inserted a finger under it, wiggling the cotton fabric to get more room. “This stupid new shirt,” he muttered, though his skin felt too tight, as well. Why’d she have to appear so damn appealing?

“You look very handsome in it,” Polly remarked. “But I don’t think that’s what’s eating you.”

“Tess—”

“It’s not her,” Polly said over him. “Something else is getting to you. Is it work? You don’t ever talk about that.”

“There’s nothing to say.” He’d taught himself long ago to separate his job from his civilian life...and from his civilian friends. The pictures that sometimes stayed in his head didn’t need to be passed on to anyone. His father, another firefighter, had told him that from the very first.

Teague heard his best-friend-who-was-a-girl come up behind him. He could smell her, something like roses. Possibly addictive. Incredibly bothersome. From the corner of his eye, he could just make out her golden hair and her sweetheart’s profile. Her lips were as red as her dress, and he quickly looked away from them, refocusing his gaze on the surf. Stealing glances of Polly’s mouth wasn’t easing his weird, twitching nerves any.

Then she touched his bare forearm. The contact zapped him, an electrical shock that sent him jolting away from her.

He stared down at his skin, checking for a burn. Smoke.

“Teague,” she said. “
What
is wrong?”

His answer was automatic, even as he continued to inspect his unmarred, but still smarting flesh. “Tess—”

“You don’t even know her!” Polly exclaimed. She flapped her arms, clearly impatient. “My God, you don’t even know me, and I’ve been one of your best buds for nearly five years.”

He stared, sure he’d never seen her temperamental like this. They were both usually easygoing, their moods a laid-back match. “Of course I know you,” he said, keeping his voice calm and reasonable. “You’re an open book to me.”

She rolled her eyes and tapped one foot. The movement drew his gaze to her toes. This time they were painted a swirl of hot pink and passion red—the colors, he thought in an odd turn of fancy, of a French kiss, if such a thing could be described that way.

“There’s so much you’ve never bothered to find out about me,” Polly muttered.

As in what it would be like to thrust his tongue between those perfect lips. Or slide his hand into the bodice of that dress to cradle the warm resiliency of her breast. He cleared his throat, trying to eradicate the errant thoughts, and shoved his hands in his pockets because his goddamn slacks were now starting to tighten. “Cheerleader, track team member, faux secretary of the chess club. Usually the most even-tempered, sunshine-souled person I know.”

“Please don’t use the word
perky.

“Kindergarten teachers have to be perky.”

“That’s what I said,” she muttered, her gaze on the floor. “But I’m more than all those things. Sunshine-souled! Please. I have shadows. Dark places.”

“Yeah,” Teague said, “you’re right. I know, for example, that your dad did a number on you and your mom.”

Her head jerked up. “What?”

“I put the dribs and drabs you trickle out together. You were thirteen when your parents divorced, the only sibling left at home. Your mom hung on, but not so well. You tried to perky your way through it.”

Polly was staring at him, her eyes as blue and wide as the perfect, cloudless sky on this August afternoon. “I never told you that.”

“You didn’t have to. I’ve met your mother, remember? Nice lady, but it’s clear she leans on you. You do her taxes, Pol. You helped her figure out that snafu with her medical bills.”

“I’m good at math.”

“You’re damn great at giving the impression you’re good at everything. Maybe that’s why you don’t have a guy—it’s intimidating to some of them.”

“I have guys.”

“We’ve already decided the kindergarten set doesn’t count.” He tilted his head. “Do you ever see your dad?”

“He’s not interested in knowing me, either,” she muttered.

Teague frowned, reaching her in two strides. He put a finger under her chin and forced her gaze to his. Those blue, blue eyes. “What did you say?”

“He cut me out of his life. My brothers...they were finished with college, living on their own. He spent time with them. Does now, too. But I was the one at home, witnessing Mom’s pain, and when I happened to mention that...” She drew a finger across her throat. “I think being around me made him feel guilty.”

“Oh, Pol...” He stroked his thumb along her soft cheek, aching for her. And then, as his gaze fixed on her half-parted, rosy-colored mouth...aching for her. Her perfume tempted him, tantalized, like a come-hither finger. A new tension took over his muscles, hardening him everywhere as he found himself bending toward her lips.

“Polly,” he whispered, his voice rough. The moment stretched, endlessly long.

She stayed silent, but he heard the catch of her breath, saw the rise of female flesh press against the dress that he now noticed wrapped her cleavage and appeared to fasten with a single button under her left breast. Heat prickled along the nape of his neck and down his back and he felt Polly quiver beneath his hand.

Her trembling reasserted his common sense. This was Pol, his best pal! Stepping back, he glanced at the watch strapped to his wrist. “Hey, we better get going or else we’ll be late. I wouldn’t want to disappoint Tess—”

“Disappoint
Tess?

Uh-oh. The eyes of his best-friend-who-was-a-girl were sparking blue fire. He’d never considered Polly high-strung, but he just might have to revise his opinion. “Um...”

“Disappoint
Tess?
” she repeated.

“Well...who else?” he asked.

Her mouth pinched together into a little mulish shape that he probably shouldn’t point out looked just like a heart, because of the red lipstick.
“Who else?”
She whirled away from him, whirled back. “You are...are... Words can’t even describe.”

“Well, while you’re coming up with some other manner of communication, can we get a move on?” He didn’t think it was prudent to be here, alone with Polly, when her temper was high and his nerves and libido were acting up. He was a heartbeat away from saying something stupid like “You’re beautiful when you’re furious.”

She was his buddy, not beautiful.

He was glad he stopped himself from saying that, too, because she was staring at him as if she was trying to remember where she’d left her favorite butcher knife.

His feet shifted on the floor, his instincts going on highest alert. “Look, Pol—”

“No, you look,” she said, and then her fingers reached for the little button beneath the bodice of her dress.

He took another hasty step back, but it was too late. Between one breath and another, she’d unfastened the thing, and sure enough, there was nothing else to keep the cherry-red fabric wrapped around her body. She shimmied her shoulders and the fabric dropped, pooling at her feet in a circle. It looked like the petals of a flower, a hibiscus maybe, with Polly’s mostly nude body rising from the center.

Polly’s mostly nude body.

Oh, God. There it was, her small, strong body covered with nothing but those strappy sandals and a pair of flesh-toned lace panties. Her chest moved up and down, drawing his gaze to her small, palm-sized breasts, the pale pink nipples tight. His belly tightened. His cock went hard.

And it hit him then, that he’d had fantasies of this, of her, in the deepest darkest hours of the night. Fantasies that he’d done his best to forget if they flickered across his consciousness during daylight.

In shock, he took another step back. And then another, and another and another until his shoulder blades slammed against the front door. Mind reeling, he stood paralyzed, still struck dumb. Then he tried for coherence. “Polly...” He made a vague gesture. “This...”

You...you’ve staggered me,
he thought, his mouth too dry to push out the words.
And I don’t really understand what’s happened.

“Just go,” she said, spinning on her heel. “Just go away.”

And he did it, he obeyed her, rushing off without even taking the opportunity to gawk at her fine ass. Because he was convinced he’d make less of a fool of himself at Tess’s party than he’d managed to do in Polly’s bungalow.

* * *

W
ALKING
UP
THE
FRONT
path to his sister’s elegant Spanish-style house in the upper-middle-class suburb of Cheviot Hills, Gage found himself wishing desperately that Skye had agreed to come with him. He’d texted her and asked—since yesterday, they were back in contact, if only via phone so far—but she’d been obliged to meet a repairman at one of the cottages and would arrive later.

Feet planted on the front porch, he hesitated. Stalling, he knew, because once inside he’d be stuck. Damn it, why hadn’t he waited for Skye? Then he would have had a buffer between himself and what he’d face inside. Like that visit he’d made to the mall, he knew the party would deliver another jolt of culture shock. There’d be a shitload of people he’d be expected to small talk with, and he had a bad feeling that celebration or no, his twin was going to corner him. Maybe he shouldn’t have ignored Griff’s calls, but in the days and nights during which he’d holed up at No. 9, waiting for Skye to get over her unnecessary awkwardness and return to him, Gage had found himself unable to sleep. It wasn’t due to that little lap dance he and his pen pal had enjoyed—he was a guy and not so hung up on perfectly natural bodily responses and perfectly pretty partial nudity. It was some residual aftereffects of his near disaster overseas that were to blame.

His brother would have known something was up if he’d heard Gage’s exhausted voice. He still might, even though after the yeah-we’re-good-again text exchange with his pen pal, Gage had managed twelve hours of shut-eye. With all the lights on, of course.

An unfamiliar couple came up behind him, and he was forced through the door, drifting in their wake. A household helper—hired for the occasion, Gage assumed—had let them in, so he was able to keep to the periphery of the party, unnoticed. Most of the action appeared to be poolside, and he stood in the shadows of the spacious backyard observing the other guests. Men and women were dressed in summer SoCal casual—that ran the gamut from crinkly cotton worn with shandals—rope-soled, awning-striped canvas footwear—to silk sundresses studded with sequins and glittery beads. A dozen kids were playing in the pool, the smallest at the shallows of the beach entry, while others scooted around the large Baja shelf like stingrays. Above the chatter of the partygoers, he heard “Marco!” and the expected response, “Polo!”

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