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Authors: Christie Ridgway

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BOOK: The Love Shack
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Rage at the man who’d done this to her bubbled in Gage’s belly like black tar. But he kept his voice level and calm. “You’re still there. Not one of your warm, womanly pieces have been lost. They’re just playing it safe for now.”

“Sure.” She gave him a disbelieving half smile, then turned to leave the kitchen. “I’m going to be okay. I just need some rest.”

What else could he do but trail her to her front door? Still, when he got there, he paused, rage and sympathy and impotence churning in his gut. He’d been beyond powerless for two weeks, and despised every moment of it, but he’d go through that experience again ten times over if he could erase Skye’s pain.

“Are you really going to be okay?” he asked.

“For the summer, yes. Not so sure how I’ll do once the cove goes quiet again.”

He frowned. “Meaning?”

“I may not stay here,” she said with a shrug.

Her words rocked him. No Skye at the cove? It was like imagining the summer without sun. The ocean without waves. Seagulls without wings.

“Where would you go?” he asked.

“A nunnery, maybe,” she said with another unamused half smile, “as permanent celibacy seems a definite possibility.”

Oh, Skye.
Staring down at her small, serious face, he could no longer hold himself apart from her. Touching was imperative. Murmuring something that was half apology, half reassurance, he reached out and pulled her to him.

She stiffened, but he held firm. “Let me,” he said against her hair. “Let me do this.” And when, after another moment, she relaxed against his chest he closed his eyes and breathed out a grateful prayer even as he breathed in her sweet, lovely scent.

It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to draw his lips along her soft hair to the tender skin at her temple. He dropped a baby kiss there, just the slightest press of his mouth to the fluttering pulse that he then felt compelled to taste with his tongue.

Skye quivered at the damp contact and her chin lifted. As they stared into each other’s eyes, an urgency rose in him, a breathless insistence not unlike that he’d felt when he’d been running up the sand. Running to her.

And now that he had her...

He lost his head.

Gage’s mouth came down on hers. His fingers tightened on her upper arms, but instead of fighting him, her body yielded, going boneless. He reassured her anyway. “This is me,” he said against her mouth, then licked the seam of her lips.

They parted, and she quivered in his hold.

He didn’t make any quick moves with his tongue. He just toyed with her mouth, painting the soft surfaces, sucking on the plump upper curve, letting her feel the edge of his teeth as he delicately bit the lower one. She was panting, her breath hot against his chin, and when he heard her moan...

He plunged.

She made a sound deep in her throat. With one arm around her waist, he gathered her closer and fed on her mouth. It was crazy, this intense need to have her, to know her flavor so intimately, but it had him in its thrall. She seemed equally absorbed, her lips still open to him, his shirt tangled in the grip of her fingers. When he broke to allow them air, she stayed glued against him, her body heat mingling with his.

Nuzzling her hair, he knew the moment the brief spell broke. A small whimper sounded. Her hands dropped. She stepped out of his arms.

Without a protest, he let her go.

“That shouldn’t have happened,” she said.

When she meant she hadn’t thought it
could
happen. Skye hadn’t believed that she could—even for a moment—lose herself and her lingering terror in the pleasure of a man’s kiss.

In Gage’s kiss.

“That
really
shouldn’t have happened.” She took another step back, a panicked expression on her face.

Gage, on the other hand, felt calm and centered for the first time since receiving her call, his next steps clear in his mind. He owed Skye in ways she’d never know, and he’d make payment on the debt by convincing her that the sweet fire had been no aberration.

Her sexuality still burned, and he would be the one to prove it to her. Not only because it was obvious an attraction ran between them, but because he knew he had her trust.

He wouldn’t break it. Instead, he’d do everything in his power to reassure her she was still a woman. What else were friends for?

* * *

S
KYE
HAD
GOTTEN
DRESSED
before dawn, determined to get started on an idea she’d come up with weeks before. With a cup of coffee downed, she was caffeinated enough to put her muscles into pushing the living room furniture to the center of the floor. Next, she rolled up the hall runner. Following that, she stacked the kitchen chairs atop the table. Old sheets served as tarps to cover the furniture and then she retrieved the tools from the garage: rollers, pan and brushes. She was lugging in cans of lemon-chiffon-colored paint when she heard someone at her front door.

Pulse tripping, Skye froze. Every instinct she had told her who stood on the other side. Those same instincts warred with each other in loud demand:
Pretend you’re not home! Welcome him in!

Part of her was relieved he now knew the truth. She wouldn’t have to paper over her odd edginess. He’d understand her jumpy nerves and aversion to being touched.

Except she’d let him touch her last night.

Kiss her.

And she’d managed not to faint in panic.

Another thump sounded on the door. “I hear your brain whirring in there, Skye,” Gage called through the wood. “Take a deep breath and let me in.”

Still, she hesitated.

“I bear fancy coffee.”

Feeling ridiculous, she set down the cans and made her way toward the door. One comfort kiss from him didn’t mean he anticipated another. She’d probably been a lousy partner in the whole thing, she thought, turning the knob. Had she even responded? She only remembered
absorbing
—his heat, his strength, his exotic-spice smell.

A blush crawled up her neck as she pulled open the door. Her heart stuttered as she took in the sight of him, breeze-ruffled dark hair, piercing blue-green eyes, faint smile on his lips. His alert gaze gave her an intense study and she suspected he could see every toss and turn, every sleepless minute, every second thought she’d had since bidding him good-night.

She shouldn’t have called him from the office.

She shouldn’t have shared her secret.

She shouldn’t have let him kiss her.

“Stop thinking so much,” he advised, stepping over the threshold. He placed a cardboard cup in her hand.

“Thank you,” she said, sniffing at the rich scent of fresh grounds. “How far did you have to go for this?”

“Captain Crow’s.”

Her eyes rounded. “They don’t open until eleven.”

“Unless you’re me, and you strike up a conversation with the prep cook who starts work at seven.”

“Ah.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” he said, uncurling his forefinger from around his own cup to point it at her. “His name is George and he has a wife and three kids.”

“My mind’s not in the gutter!” Well, not since she woke from a twenty-minute midnight doze during which she’d imagined herself stretched out on her bed, Gage standing at its foot, slowly stripping off his clothes.

He grinned at her, then reached into his front pocket to pull free a slim camera. Still juggling his coffee, he managed to bring the viewfinder to his eye and snap a shot. “I’ll call it ‘Guilty as Charged.’”

“That’s an invasion of privacy,” she said, frowning at him.

“I think that blush indicates that you’ve been mentally invading mine.”

“Gage!”

He laughed. “Relax. Nobody will see the photo but the two of us.”

“I don’t want
you
looking at me,” she grumbled.

Ignoring her, he took a slow perusal of the living room. “What’s going on?”

She swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “I’ve been planning on repainting some rooms, rearranging the furniture in others. Sort of...”

“Reclaiming your territory?”

“Yes,” she said, grateful that no more explanation was necessary. He understood her so well. “Yes, exactly.”

“You should have written to me when it happened,” he said, his voice low. “I would have done something, anything—”

“Gage, you were thousands of miles away.”

“I know, but—” He blew out a frustrated breath. “But I can do something now. Let me help. Let me help you paint. I’m the best furniture mover you’ll ever meet.”

She sent him a skeptical glance. “Don’t you have better things to do?”

“Actually, no. You’d be doing me a favor. I get tired of my own company pretty quickly these days.”

It was her turn to study him. “That’s a surprise. As you’ve pointed out before, your job means you spend a lot of time alone.”

He lifted a shoulder. “Too much time, it seems. Give me a paint roller, Skye, I’m begging you.”

What could she do when her pen pal put it like that?

And the fact was, his assistance helped her in more ways than one. Not only was he tall, skilled with tools and willing to do whatever asked, but being around him leached the awkwardness she’d been feeling over the kiss, even though they started work in separate rooms. She took the kitchen and he the living room.

They expected to meet in the hallway.

But before that, she caught him taking more pictures. “What are you doing?” she said, craning to look at him from her place on a stepladder.

“Just practicing. I haven’t held a camera in weeks.”

Weird. Because she remembered him never being without one since he was nine or ten. “Why not?”

He shrugged, and snapped again. She thought he’d focused on the back of her hand, speckled with pale yellow paint freckles. “That can’t be pretty,” she said.

“In the eye of the beholder,” he commented as he wandered off.

Half an hour later, she brought him a cold glass of iced tea. He’d opened the front door so that the breeze cleared out some of the paint fumes. Her gaze was drawn to it, and she tried to quell her instant quake of worry. Usually it was double-locked and dead-bolted. At night she hung a cowbell from the knob.

“I’m between you and your nightmares,” he murmured, taking the glass she proffered.

As she glanced away from the concerned look in his eyes, her gaze snagged on the camera he’d left on top of the sheet-draped sofa. She cleared her throat. “I never asked—how did professional photography come about?”

He pursed his lips, appearing to think. “I suspect it all begins with Rex Monroe.”

“Rex?” He was ninety-something years old, and a longtime resident of the cove. A Pulitzer Prize–winning war correspondent, he’d complained about the Lowell twins every year they’d summered at Beach House No. 9.

“He was annoyed with me and Griffin one fog-shrouded afternoon. We were wrestling and yelling at each other in his yard. If I remember correctly, he yanked us into his house by the scruff of our necks and told us we needed to better ourselves instead of batter our brother.”

Skye laughed. “He has a way with words.”

“In his study, he had an old manual typewriter and sitting next to it, a Kodak Brownie camera. It was a classic even then, something he’d had since the 1950s, but he...he let me touch it. Showed me how to use it. Griff was engrossed with putting letters onto paper, but that Brownie...the world looked different to me through its lens.”

“Different how?”

“I controlled it.” He finished off his tea and set the empty glass on the windowsill. “I could cut away the parts that didn’t fit my vision. I could focus on the subjects
I
thought needed to be seen. The appeal of that never left me.”

“So in college...”

“I studied political science, not photography. But one spring break I went with a philanthropic group to Mexico with the intention of building a school by day and drinking tequila by night. We were there when the region was shaken by a magnitude-7.9 earthquake. The photos I took were the first that made it out...and they were the beginning of making my reputation.”

“And you continued globe-trotting and taking photographs,” Skye said. She didn’t know why the words made her melancholy. Gage had found his place in the world, just as her place was here at the cove. Or
had
been at the cove.

Okay, melancholy explained.

A crease dug between his eyebrows. “What’s wrong, honey?”

She didn’t want to say the words.
This all ends here. We’ll never again be at this place together.

Once summer’s over, we’ll never again be together anywhere.

Still frowning, he approached her slowly. She didn’t move; her feet felt weighted to the floor, made as heavy as her heart by the notion that this was the aching end of everything. “Skye,” he whispered, and his fingers were just as gentle as his voice when he pushed a wisp of hair off her forehead.

“Don’t,” she whispered back, feeling as if she were teetering on the edge of the tall bluff at the south end of the cove, with only cold water and jagged rocks to welcome her at the bottom.
Don’t push me. I’ll never survive the fall.

Instead of obeying her unspoken words, Gage stepped closer.

She jerked back, her pulse rocketing.

He only smiled. “Sweet Skye. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kiss you again.” Then he leaned around her to grab a rag draped on the sheet-shrouded wing chair behind her.

“I didn’t... I don’t—”

His second smile held more mischief. “Unless you ask me to, that is.”

Pulse still racing, Skye stared after him as he returned to work, unsure of her reaction to his provocative statement. Was it relief...or disappointment?

CHAPTER SEVEN

T
EAGUE
W
HITE
WAS
ZONED
OUT
,
staring into his beer, when a voice found its way into his consciousness. “Hey, you okay?”

He looked up, coming back to the present. August evening. Captain Crow’s deck. Tables pushed together and a big gathering of friends drinking, laughing, talking, as part of the ongoing dual celebration of Gage Lowell’s vacation and his twin Griffin’s impending nuptials.

His gaze slid to the questioner. It was the bride-to-be, Jane Pearson, who was seated near him along with her fiancé. Skye, Polly and Gage were gathered at his table, as well. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a little out of it. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” There’d been no down time during his last twenty-four-hour shift.

Polly studied his face. “Work was tough?”

He grunted, then took up his beer for a swallow.

“I don’t know how you do it, Teague,” Jane said. “You go from ‘tough’ hours on the job and slide right into party time.”

Griffin leaned back in his chair. “I once did a story on Doctors Without Borders,” he said. “The men and women engaged in that kind of work are experts at leaving the dark stuff on a high shelf.”

“I suppose you have to separate yourself in some way,” Jane murmured.

Teague was saved from examining his psyche by the sound of female laughter at the other end of the conjoined tables. They all looked over to see Tess Quincy pulling her recalcitrant husband up by the elbow. His grumbles only made her laugh harder.

God, she was beautiful, Teague thought.

At thirty-three, she was no longer the long-legged girl he’d admired from afar when they were both kids summering at the cove. And she wasn’t the gorgeous nineteen-year-old star of TV commercials who’d become the unexpected darling of the country. He’d had her poster hanging in his bedroom. Her image had been the screen saver on his very first laptop.

When he’d run into her on the sand in front of No. 9 in June, he’d almost thought it was the beach house’s purported magic that had conjured her there. For him. He’d fallen fast.

Now, as he watched her husband, David, follow her onto the dance floor, he didn’t wish that the two of them hadn’t reconciled. Clearly, the man doted on her. Tess radiated happiness. But he couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for himself.

“Hey, honey pie,” Griffin said to his almost-bride. “It’s your song.”

“As covered by Teague’s first love,” Skye put in.

“What?” Curiosity sparked in Polly’s big blue eyes. “Do tell.”

Teague shifted in his chair and cursed the DJ who’d decided to play The Jewels’ cover of Cowboy Junkie’s cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” “Can we talk about something else?”

“Not while I’m alive,” Polly said, flashing him one of her brilliant smiles. Then she turned to Skye, whom he’d known all his life—which was clearly much too long. “Spill.”

“Now that I consider it,” Skye said, tapping her chin with a finger, “it’s his second big love. The first was the exchange student from Belgium who attended our high school junior year. He moped for months after she returned home to the land of waffles and chocolate. Then—”

“I had other girlfriends,” he declared over her, annoyed.

“But no one you really flipped for until Amethyst Lake came into your life.”

Polly hooted. “Amethyst Lake? That sounds like an anime character.”

“Her real name was Amy Lake,” Teague said stiffly. “Amethyst is her stage name. She’s the singer for The Jewels.”

His best-friend-who-was-a-girl continued to snicker. “When was this?”

“It was...five years ago?” Skye posited. “Right before you two met, Amethyst and her group left on tour, never to return.”

“Wow,” Gage said admiringly. “It’s the stuff of fantasy, dating the hot lead of an all-girl rock band.”

“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?” Polly demanded of Skye, then turned to Teague. “Why didn’t
you
tell me?”

The back of his neck was burning. “Let’s talk about someone else. Surely I’m not the only person with a romance he or she would rather forget.”

Gage raised his eyebrows in the direction of his sister-in-law-to-be. “I heard that Jane dated the famous author Ian Stone.”

Griffin leaned forward, sending his brother a hard look. “We don’t speak of Ian Stone.”

“Jeez, okay,” he said, hands up. His gaze roamed the table. “Polly, you look like a girl with a torrid history.”

Teague nearly snorted. She looked like a girl who won the Girl Scout cookie prize and celebrated by sharing an ice-cream soda with the boy voted most likely to become a Jesuit priest. “Polly’s closemouthed about her past, but you gotta assume it’s so clean it squeaks.”

Skye elbowed her friend. Teague glanced over at the movement, caught her whisper. “Wait, doesn’t he know about—”

“Girl dance!” Polly called, her gaze avoiding Teague as she yanked Skye from the table by the hand. The beat of The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” was rocking through the speakers. “Jane, you come, too.”

And so, before he could completely assimilate the “doesn’t he know about,” the women were gone, deserting the men for the small parquet floor, where they shook their asses and shimmied their shoulders in ways you only saw in movies like
Dirty Dancing
or when females were partnered with each other. Teague stared. He didn’t know Polly had those moves in her.

“I used to think watching that was hot in junior high,” Gage commented. “It only gets better as I age.”

“Or as you get hornier,” his brother said. “Making any progress on the Gorge?”

Gage scowled at his twin. “Like Ian Stone, we won’t speak of it.”

“Oh, hell,” Griffin said, groaning. “That’s a bad sign. And I promised Jane I’d warn you again about getting involved with Skye. As in, don’t. Is that what’s going on?”

Skye?
She was his friend, too. Teague looked between the twins.

“It’s none of your business,” Gage said.

“You don’t know—”

“I know much more than you do.” Gage tossed back the rest of his beer. “Don’t mess with me on this, Griff.”

The tense atmosphere was palpable. Teague glanced over his shoulder, compelled to check on the women, and happened to catch the segue from rock beat to the slow groove of blues. The women slowed, too, and a man sitting at a table behind Polly gave her the obvious one-two and rose from his chair.

Teague didn’t know what got into him, but he had his hands on her before the other guy could introduce himself. He immediately took her in his arms and sidestepped her away from her would-be partner, even as Polly’s clearly surprised face turned up to his. Yeah, he was a little flabbergasted himself.

By how good it felt to hold her like this.

Had they never danced together?

He tried to remember as they swayed to the sultry rhythm of “At Last” by Etta James, and supposed not. They’d hiked together, skied, taken road trips with bicycles. Pal stuff, and often as part of a larger group of friends.

“You’re small,” he said. He thought of her as athletic and energetic, but under his hands, he could feel her delicate bone structure. Her face was all female, of course, the clean lines of her features dressed up with the blond hair and blue eyes. But he’d never noticed how incredibly...feminine she was. He glanced down the space between their bodies. She wore some kind of filmy, hippy-style top with jeans. Strappy shoes, with a platform that elevated her height by several inches, revealed her slim, slightly tanned bare feet.

She had adorable toes. Every nail was painted blue, yellow or a combination of the two, and each one was different from the other. A silver ring circled the second toe on her left foot, a tiny enameled butterfly poised atop it as if ready for flight.

His gaze traveled back to her face. “You’re such a girl.” He knew it sounded as if he’d just discovered the fact, which wasn’t true. From the first he’d known she was female and hell, he’d been a little proud of himself for having such a close friendship with someone from the opposite sex.

But he’d managed that by rarely thinking about her at the same time as...well, sex.

Now that he’d taken in those painted toes, that butterfly, the absolute America’s Sweetheart-ness of her face...
Shit.

Her sandy eyebrows drew together and she frowned at him, the corners of her pink mouth turning down. “What’s this all about?” she asked.

He didn’t know. He couldn’t explain it. But things just didn’t seem the same with her slim fingers in his and his palm molding the curve of her waist. “Uh...”

She sighed. “Is this your chance to get close to Tess?” she whispered.

Who? “Oh, Tess.”

Rolling her eyes, Polly shifted so that he had a different view of the dance floor over her shoulder. “Get your fix,” she murmured. And there was the beautiful Tess in his line of sight, a smile on her face as she pressed her cheek to her husband’s shoulder.

“Better now?” Polly asked.

“Perfect,” Teague said, pulling her a little nearer and closing his eyes. “Exactly right.” He let himself enjoy her for another long minute.

Then, to prove Griffin was onto something, Teague took a breath and eased Polly and her newly acknowledged femininity away. He imagined himself putting them on the highest mental shelf he had, where all disconcerting and disturbing memories and events belonged.

* * *

G
AGE
LIFTED
HIS
ARMS
overhead and twisted from side to side as he and Skye walked up the beach. They’d decided on a visit to the tide pools, and had just passed Captain Crow’s in time to witness the five o’clock conch cell ceremony. Not thirty minutes ago, they’d completed her paint-and-rearrangement project after three days of joint effort.

It was good to be outside, though they were among a throng—formed in large groups or gathered in small clusters—enjoying an afternoon on the sand. In August, as was fitting, summer brought its A game to Crescent Cove. The blue sky was tempura-paint bright and the sun smiled like a benign god from its place within it. The ocean’s waves raced each other to kiss the feet of little kids who dragged buckets of wet sand and beach treasure through the foam. The air tasted like a salty treat, and even the breeze was warm, coloring Skye’s cheeks pink and her mouth rosy.

She glanced up, as if feeling his regard, and tucked an errant strand of hair back into the tight braid she wore down her back. “You should send me a bill.”

“What? Why?”

“I owe you for all the hours you put in,” Skye said.

“It’s nothing—” he started, then had to grab her elbow and tug her back, saving her from being plowed over by a young man carrying his bikini-clad girl toward the surf. She shrieked, mock-beating at him, and they watched as he strode into the water. When he reached waist-height, he dropped her. A second later, he disappeared into the depths, too, either the victim of a sea monster or a sharp yank on the ankle.

Skye laughed—a little wistful?—and moved forward again.

Gage trailed behind, following her zigzagging movements as she avoided sunbathers, Frisbee tossers and sandcastles under construction. Her feet stuttered a little as she encountered a couple entwined on a blanket, clearly having forgotten their public surroundings.

She gave Gage a quick glance and then sidestepped the lovers’ blanket. On his way to do the same, he managed to jiggle the Love God’s foot as he passed. The other man’s head jerked up and he glared over his shoulder. “Small children,” Gage reminded the guy. “Grandmas.”

As they continued onward, Skye smiled at him and rocked her thumb toward her chest. “Grateful.”

He grinned back. “No problem. But I don’t blame him. It’s easy to get carried away on a day like today.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” She came to a halt as they reached the first of the tide pools cut into the rock. Bending her knees, she squatted at the edge, moving easily in her usual baggy uniform, this time a pair of carpenter’s pants three sizes too big and a long-sleeved T-shirt that could have fit him.

He hunkered beside her, taking in the little world created by the low tide. Sea stars, a scuttling hermit crab, little silver fish he couldn’t name. Colorful anemones were doing their thing, waving their tentacles as a way to draw their prey toward their mouths.

“Oops! Watch out!” a voice called from behind them, and they both turned, just in time to avoid a collision with a bowlegged toddler chasing a rubber ball. The red orb landed in the tide pool with a splash, and Gage saved the kidlet from taking the same path by hooking an arm around the little boy’s waist.

“Thank you,” said a woman, a mere breath behind him. Her hair was the same auburn as the child’s and she immediately plucked him from Gage’s hold. “Jamie! You need to listen to Mommy,” she scolded her son, who was practicing for teenhood by pretending she didn’t exist. “Thank you,” she repeated, then thanked Skye, too, who retrieved the ball from the water and handed it over.

“Adorable,” Gage commented, watching as the young mother headed off, the little guy on her hip.

“Which one?”

He frowned at Skye, but she was back to perusing the tide pool. “I don’t look at every woman as possible...date material. I was talking about the boy.”

“I guess I didn’t suspect you thought much about little kids.”

“I’ve got three nephews and a niece. I like them a lot.”

She glanced at him. “But you don’t want children of your own.”

“I’d be a piss-poor parent, what with all the travel and the nature of the job,” Gage said. “What about you?”

With careful footsteps, she picked her way over to the next pool. “I had the best childhood ever, here at the cove. Sure, I wanted to pass that on.”

Wanted.
Past tense. Gage walked up behind her, giving in to the urge to run his palm along the warm surface of her sleek, long braid. “But not now?”

She crouched low, still looking into the water and not at him. “Maybe if I could make babies like sea anemones. Some of them just divide in half to reproduce.”

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