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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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“Well, shoot. That takes all the fun out of it.”

“If you say so.” She ran her fingertips over the surface of the pool, then released a little sigh. “I wish...”

He hunkered beside her again, and made another near-ghostly pass at her braid. She twitched a little but didn’t protest. “You wish?” he prompted.

“I’d like to feel normal again,” she confessed under her breath. Then her already pink cheeks went red from embarrassment as she flicked him a glance. “Forget I said that, okay?”

“Why? Of course you’d like to feel normal again.” He hesitated, wondering if now was the time to bring up a maybe-touchy subject. “Skye...I’d like to help.”

“What?” She shot him a second glance.

“I’d like to help you get over your...aversion.”

Her color deepened. “I wasn’t begging for a volunteer.”

“It’s an offer. An offer to see if I can help you past this.”

“I don’t need your pity,” she said, shaking her head.

“That’s not what I feel for you, Skye.” What he did feel was tenderness, consideration and...and an odd, almost vital need. Maybe it was arrogant of him, but he thought he could do something for her. He
needed
to try to do something for her.

“What would you get out of it?” she grumbled.

“I liked kissing you.”

Now she stared straight into the tide pool as if it held the mysteries of the universe...or because it was a convenient way to avoid his eyes. “You told me you wouldn’t do that again.”

“I said it would have to be your idea,” he corrected. “But let’s take kissing off the table for now. Just come back with me to No. 9. I have something there you should see.”

“Is it porn? I never liked porn.”

He laughed. “No, it’s not porn. Your opinion of me is very low, by the way. I don’t pull out the porn until the third, maybe fourth date.”

When she rolled her eyes, he laughed again and then curled his fingers around her elbow to lift her to her feet. “What do you have to lose?”

“My self-respect.”

He bent close to her ears. “Or your self-restraint. Give yourself a chance to let go a little, Skye.” His fingers went to work on the band at the end of her braid.

“What are you doing?”

He sifted through the strands, releasing them from their tight binding. “Let the wind catch your hair, honey. You look so pretty with it a little wild.”

It swirled around her shoulders as they walked to the opposite end of the cove. An awkward silence tried to wedge between them, but Gage wasn’t having it. He reached down and took her hand in a firm grip, though was unsurprised when she immediately tried slipping free. “Just relax,” he said.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she muttered.

“There’s no ‘doing’ to worry about,” he reassured her. “I told you that. I just want you to look at something I’ve been working on. It might make a difference.”

“Gage—”

“It’s worth a try, right? If it goes wrong, then it’s just me, good ol’ pen pal Gage.”
And if it goes right?
a voice whispered in his head.
What then?
How far would he let things go? He didn’t know.

By the time they made it to the southern end of the cove, she appeared half relaxed, half resigned. “I won’t hold this against you,” she said. Then added, “Unless it’s porn.”

He lifted a brow as he unlocked the sliding door leading into the living room from the deck. “You’re sure hung up on that.”

“I am not!”

With his fingertips at the small of her back, he ushered her inside. “There’s no shame in being visually stimulated.” He smiled as she glanced at him over his shoulder. “I’m sorta counting on it, honey.”

“It
is
porn.”

He laughed, and then grasped her by the shoulders and propelled her into the small room he used as an office. The space was shadowy, drapes over the windows to prevent a glare on the screen of his laptop, which sat on the desk. He pulled out the large office chair before it and pushed Skye onto its wide seat.

Tapping a few keys brought the device to life and brought up the image he wanted to show her. When it appeared, she froze. “It’s me,” she said.

It was. He’d started with a photo he’d taken of her at twilight, standing on the beach. The sky, the ocean, the sand were all different gradations of gray and Skye was silhouetted against them from behind. He had some mad photo-editing skills, if he did say so himself, and he’d whittled her out of the sloppy clothes so she was a womanly outline. While her head, hands and feet were an opaque black, she appeared to be dressed in a colorful, patchwork quilt catsuit. Except—

“Oh.” She’d figured it out, already mousing over one of the small shapes of the “quilt.” It bloomed bigger as she hovered on it and there was the photograph of a seagull he’d caught in soaring flight.

Her hand moved and another image went from tiny to large. It was part of one of her letters to him, the “Dear Gage” in her distinctive handwriting, the one that always sent a wash of warmth and anticipation through him when he saw it on a yet-unopened envelope.

Her fingers traced over the mouse pad, opening new images: Captain Crow’s martini flag; covers of her favorite books, from Ian Stone to George R. R. Martin; a photo of one of her mother’s plein air paintings; a child leashed to a boogie board, emerging from the surf.

“When did you do this?” she demanded. “You’ve been at my house helping me.”

“I don’t sleep much.” No sense giving the nightmares time to take hold.

“Oh, Gage.” She sat back, staring at the latest thumbnail she’d expanded. It was her house, looking cheerful and welcoming with its potted lemon tree and flower-covered trellis.

“All those things are still inside you, Skye,” he said gently. “All the things that make you special. That make this place special. No one can take any of them away.”

With a quick movement, she popped out of the chair. It swiveled and the seat bumped her forward, but she didn’t seem to need the encouragement to step near and give him a hug. It was friendly. Sisterly.

He had no reason to expect more.

But he wanted more. For her.

Disentangling himself, he stepped around Skye and took the chair. “I did another for you.”
All for you.

He called up a second screen, a second image. Skye again. The twilight, the patchwork catsuit. But the thumbnails were of a different type. More personal. Intimate.

As he hovered over one, glancing back to read her reaction, a realization seized him. This wasn’t just for her. It was for him, too.

CHAPTER EIGHT

S
KYE
STARED
AT
THIS
NEW
representation of herself. The other had been dressed in bright colors and she’d been delighted when she expanded the shapes to discover they were really cove flowers, cove people, cove comfort. She hadn’t viewed them all yet, but she knew they’d each bring a smile to her face. A grin, actually, because Gage had chosen them for her.

But these, these were not strictly Gage’s choice—in the same sense.

Because they were her. All her.

He hovered over one thumbnail, and the photo enlarged. Flesh-toned, a soft-angled curve.

Skye swallowed. “That’s my ankle bone.”

“Pretty feet,” he said.

The next, a slice of the small of her back. She must have been reaching, painting a high spot, probably, because the hem of her shirt was raised. The too-big pants hung low on her hips. And there was the curve of her waist, the scoop just above the dimples of her butt.

That place prickled now. She moved from her spot behind Gage’s chair, surprisingly drawn though not one part of her body had brought her pleasure in months. Her breath drew in quick as he snaked an arm about her and tugged her down to his lap.

She would have jumped away, if at the same moment he hadn’t expanded another thumbnail. There was her hand, with the yellow paint freckles, and it looked funny and oddly sweet and reminded her of how well they had worked together. How hard he had worked to make her comfortable with him.

Her fingers stretched toward the mouse pad. He let her control the unveiling then, and she opened new photographs, all of herself. There was the feathery dark fringe of her eyelashes, the slender column of her neck, the defenseless curve of her palm, her fingers half curled over it as if she cradled something precious inside.

She frowned. “When did you take that?” The hand looked so...vulnerable.

“When you had a little catnap yesterday after lunch.”

Uneasiness trickled through her. That was the second time she’d fallen asleep when she was alone with him. It shouldn’t be possible—but it had been from the very first. Despite the anxiety she’d been suffering from for months, deep inside, below the defenses and the fears, she trusted him.

Of course she trusted him. This was her friend. Her pen pal Gage.

Still, she saw that her fingers shook a little as she hovered over yet another small rectangle. It bloomed, and there was her mouth, tender-looking, half parted. As if in expectation of a kiss.

Skye’s chest tightened and heat washed over her skin. Her lips, the real ones, tingled. That low-belly clenching was back. Nerves—no, she knew what it was. She’d acknowledged it days ago.

Desire.

It raced through her blood, making her heart bang against her ribs like the clapper on a bell sending out tidings of...of gladness.

She was so glad that she wanted to kiss. To kiss Gage.

The air disappeared as she slowly turned her head to look at him. Even in the dim room, his incredible eyes smoldered with a soft heat and he studied her face with an intensity that made her shiver.

Yet he didn’t make a move. She was still surrounded by him, his thighs hard beneath her, his chest rising and falling as it took in oxygen she couldn’t find. But he remained still as that burning, ardent want made its way through her system.

“Gage...” she whispered. When she licked her lips, his gaze followed the movement. “I...”

He touched her cheek with one fingertip. That tiny point of contact unspooled another ribbon of heat that rippled across her skin. “All for you,” he said, his voice quiet. “Whatever you want.”

She wanted that kiss.

Shifting on his lap, she moved into better position, sitting sideways across his legs.

He watched her without comment. When her hands gripped the solid heaviness of his shoulders, she felt a twitch beneath her bottom. It stopped her for a moment, the evidence of his arousal reminding her he was flesh and blood. A man.

A voice began whispering in the back of her mind, getting louder with each passing second.
His
voice. The scrape of a cold blade against her even colder skin. A cruel, groping hand on her breast.
“You like that? You’ll like what’s next even better.”

She trembled, her fingers tightening on the slope of muscle and bone that was so big, so masculine, so much more powerful—

“Come back, Skye,” Gage murmured. “Come back to me.”

And like that, she was returned to the moment, back with her pen pal, her friend, the one who could see inside her. Who knew her well enough to remind her of all the fractured pieces that she thought his kiss might just make whole.

Before she lost her nerve, Skye leaned in. His mouth was warm against hers, his lips smooth, the contrast between them and the whiskered grit of the surrounding skin making her insides jitter. She lifted one hand and cupped his lean cheek, angling his face so she could press her lips harder against his.

His mouth opened and her tongue slipped inside.

Her clanging heart redoubled its rhythm even as they both froze. Then he rubbed the edges of his teeth against her tongue. She gasped as he bit down, trapping it inside his mouth. Then he sucked, slow and gentle, the action unhurried, yet so carnal that her breasts swelled, the tips contracting to hard points that stung with the need to be touched.

Instead, Skye touched Gage. She wormed both hands beneath the hem of his T-shirt, her fingertips riding the ridges of his belly muscles. His breath hitched and she lifted her mouth, needing to take in air, too. But she didn’t want to stop...not just yet. Her lips brushed over his chin and the tickling whiskers there. Harsh breaths moved his chest against her hands as she palmed his hot skin. When her thumbs brushed over the points of his nipples, he groaned. She swallowed her own groan, shivering, as she ran the flat of her tongue along his jawline. He tasted tangy, like the air at the cove, and she lapped at it, reveling in the flavor.

His hand shot up, fingers spearing into her hair at the back of her head, then quickly released. His arm dropped to his side, even as she felt a new rigidity in the muscles beneath her palms. She kneaded his pectorals, appreciating the sleek skin, the rough softness of hair, the power that he gave her to play.

“Take this off,” she said, withdrawing her hands to pluck at the soft cotton of shirt. “Please?”

“All for you,” he murmured again. “Anything you want.” One hand reached behind him and he leaned away from the seat back to pull off his shirt. The movement brought his chest closer to hers, and suddenly she needed more. As he threw off the fabric, she stripped her own T-shirt away.

They stared at each other, both of them breathing hard. He’d yet to relax against the seat, and with every inhalation his chest was tantalizingly close to her erect nipples, which were pressing into the lace of her bra. Moving as slow as a starfish inching across rocks, Gage lifted his hands to her waist. His fingers gripped her gently, turned her more completely, so instead of sitting across his lap, she straddled him.

The hot, moist center of her legs pressed into the thick bulge at his crotch. Without even thinking, she rocked against it, rubbing, pleasing herself, assuaging and stoking the ache there at the same time.

Gage’s fingers flexed and then one palm brushed up her spine, bumping over the strap of the bra that now maddened her. She wanted it gone. She wanted them skin to skin.

Her fingers unhooked the front clasp herself. She shrugged the undergarment from her shoulders. Gage fell back against the seat, his gaze fixed on her breasts.

A chill rushed over her bare skin and her lashes drifted low.
He
had looked at her there, she’d felt his lascivious eyes on her even when her own were blindfolded. His ragged fingernails had bitten into the tender side flesh and she’d whimpered behind the gag, hating herself for releasing the sound of fear. The ugly memory continued building in her mind, word upon word, image upon image playing against the back of her closed lids.

“No, Skye,” Gage said, his voice sharp. “Open your eyes. Open your eyes and see it’s me.”

She half lifted her lashes.

Dipping his head, he caught her gaze. “It’s me,” he said again, and raised his hands, brushing at her nipples with the backs of his knuckles. “My touch.”

Skye shuddered, and it was pleasure quivering through her again. Gage slid his palm under one breast, his skin warming hers, lifting the weight of it. Without taking his eyes from hers, he lowered his mouth and kissed her nipple. Then he licked it, laving a circle around the contracting point. She drew in a quick breath as the sweet pleasure speared deep in her belly. Her hands slid to either side of his head, his sleek hair against the sensitive inside of her fingers. He began to suck, drawing her flesh into his hot mouth, and she squirmed, the place between her thighs throbbing.

“Oh, God,” she said as he switched to her other breast. His fingers toyed with the wet nipple, rolling and squeezing. Desire dizzied her as he continued to play with her breasts, torturing her nipples with soft licks, spiking her need with the edge of his teeth.

Her hips rocked against his pelvis. His rigid erection fit against her, providing friction—except not enough.

Anxiety rose in her—not the same kind as before, but a fretful sense of frustration. It had to be now, she thought. Right this second she had the chance to recover what had been lost. But satisfaction only hovered, and she was afraid if she didn’t find it now, she never would.

A hoarse moan sounded from deep in her throat. Her fingers tightened on his skull, pleading wordlessly for a different touch, a stronger stroke, something...something more.
“Gage.”

He lifted his head from her breast. “Shall we move—”

“No. No.
Please.

“Shh,” he said, his gaze seeming to take in the situation. “It’s all right.”

“Please.”
She wiggled against him, aggravation threatening to splinter the need, just when it had to be honed.

“Here, baby, here.” He slid lower in the chair, adjusting their fit. When she moaned again, he slipped a hand beneath the waistband at the back of her pants, then her panties. His hot palm against her bottom jolted her heart, and jolted her forward just that infinitesimal, necessary distance.
Rightthererightthererightthere,
she thought as he took her mouth in an aggressive kiss. His erection pressed upward, his free hand came between them. Over her pants, he ground the heel against the top of her sex.

Pleasure layered over pleasure. She rose on it, like a surfer being taken by a wave. Her arms circled Gage’s neck and she thrust her tongue against his as she bore down on his next upward thrust.

Instead of falling down the face of the wave, she flew right off the top of it, her body shaking against Gage as the release shuddered through her. A flush broke over her skin and tears stung as a succession of emotions coursed through her: physical bliss, mental relief, unadulterated joy. Something that had been lost was found.

And then she came to herself, and the reality of what that recovery had cost struck her, hard. She was half naked in Gage’s arms, her forehead pressed to his shoulder, one of his hands sweeping up and down her spine. She’d...she’d
led
her pen pal, her friend, into a physical intimacy that might have ruined that other relationship with him that she cherished.

She felt selfish and awkward and horribly embarrassed. “This is terrible,” she said, scrambling to get off him. Not daring to look at his face, she swiped up her shirt and quickly yanked it over her head and shoved her hands through the sleeves. Lace caught her eye and she snatched up her bra, stuffing it into the front pocket of her pants.

“Skye,” Gage began, his voice gentle.

“No.” She backed away from him, addressing the neutral zone of his kneecaps. “You shouldn’t... I shouldn’t...”
Argh.
“‘All for you,’ you said. ‘Only for you.’ Everything’s...imbalanced now.” Ruined. She’d let her stupid physical problems mess up the best male-female relationship she’d ever had.

“Not imbalanced,” Gage said, his voice wry. “Would it help to know you made a liar out of me?”

Her gaze jumped to his.

He straightened in the chair and pushed his fingers through his hair. “You’re not the only one who got off, baby. And that hasn’t happened to me with my jeans on since I was about fourteen years old. Does that make you feel better?”

Skye shook her head as she continued to back away. It was time to go, because the only thing that would make her feel better was to find out this was all just one of her bad dreams.

* * *

P
OLLY
WAS
SEARCHING
for her car keys when a rap sounded on her front door. She knew that rap. Sighing, she considered pretending she wasn’t home. But that wouldn’t work. Teague would have seen her Volkswagen Beetle parked in the driveway behind her cottage.

He knocked again. And like metal filings to a magnet, she found herself drawn to the door. As she pulled it open, he waved a bakery bag in her face. “Your favorite muffins.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she said, breathing in a scent so delicious she automatically stepped back so he could walk inside.

“Pass right by the bakery on my way home from the station.”

How considerate of him, she thought, to make the stop even though he was coming off a twenty-four-hour shift that began and ended at 7:00 a.m. “I’m going to get fat,” she protested, even as she drew in the mouthwatering aroma of zucchini, cinnamon and walnuts.

“Your body’s perfect.”

At the deep note in his voice, her gaze flew to his. But he wasn’t looking at her. Instead he busied himself placing the bag on the breakfast bar that separated the small living room from the tiny galley kitchen. Polly walked to a cupboard to pull out a couple of plates.

“You brought one for yourself, yes?” she asked.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Then I probably shouldn’t take the time to eat, either,” she said. “I’m on my way to my old classroom. I have to box up the last of my things in preparation for the move to the new building.”

BOOK: The Love Shack
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