“This is where I live right now,” he said, rather stupidly he thought, as they were standing at the front door.
“Right now, huh?”
That surprised him. She’d picked up on the one thing in the sentence that revealed something. He’d need to be careful around her.
He opened the door and stepped aside to let her enter first.
She frowned briefly, then walked past him, into the darkness.
He followed her, leaving the lights off on purpose. There were photos of Diana everywhere. He didn’t want to explain why he lived this way, not to this woman in her designer dress and expensive gold-and-platinum jewelry. In fact, he didn’t want to talk at all.
He went to the kitchen and grabbed some candles. There were dozens available, kept on hand for winter storms when the power went out. Wordlessly, he carried them into the bedroom and placed them wherever he could; then, one by one, he lit them. When he was finished, he turned around and there she was, standing at the end of the bed, holding her purse as if she thought he might steal it.
He released a pent-up breath. She was beautiful. Jet-black hair, pale skin, green eyes that slanted upward, lips that seemed reluctant to smile. What in the hell was she doing here with him? And what was he doing here with her? He hadn’t been with a woman since Diana.
She reached into her purse for something—
A condom. Oh, God.
—and then dropped her bag on the floor. As she walked toward him, h*ps swaying slightly, she unzipped her dress. It fell halfway down her arms, revealing a lacy black bra and creamy cl**vage.
He meant to say, Go away, but instead he reached for her, pulled her against him. Her body molded to his and began slowly, slowly to move.
When he found the strength to pull back, he was trembling.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He didn’t think, didn’t speak, just swept her into his arms and carried her toward the bed.
They fell onto the rumpled bedding together, she beneath him. His body lay possessively on top of hers, and it felt good. Her h*ps came up to meet him.
Groaning, he bent down to kiss her. The soft, pliant feel of her mouth jolted him back in time.
“What did you say?”
He drew back, looked down at her.
This time, when he kissed her, he kept his eyes open. She kissed him with a ferocity that left him breathless.
She shoved her hands underneath his T-shirt. Her fingertips grazed his n**ples. “Take off your pants.” Her voice was coarse. “I want to touch you.”
They broke apart. He slid off the bed and undressed, his fingers too shaky to unbutton his jeans on the first try.
Naked, they fell together on the bed again. He rubbed his erection against her, kissing her open mouth, her chin, her closed eyes. She wrapped her leg over his and pressed in close. He felt her moisture against his thigh.
Then she reached down and touched him, wrapped her fingers tightly around him. Up and down. Up and down. He felt the condom slide into place in one practiced move.
He groaned as he thrust into her grasp one sweet, aching time, then pulled away before it was too late. He slid down her body, kissing her chin, her throat, her br**sts. He tasted one nipple, drew it into his mouth, and sucked its sweetness. His hands pushed her legs apart as he moved downward, kissing her navel, her pubic hair.
She tried to push him away.
He held her in place, lowered his kisses until he was inside her. Moaning, she clutched his head and spread her legs wider apart. His tongue explored her, tasted her, glided up and down and in and out.
“Oh. My. God.” She said it brokenly. “Now.”
He pulled her toward him in one swift motion and entered her.
She clung to him, arched up to meet him. She matched him thrust for thrust.
Joe’s cli**x was like nothing he’d ever experienced before.
“Whew,” she said, pushing the damp hair away from her face. “That was definitely an E-ticket ride.”
He leaned back against the wobbly headboard. His whole body felt weak, trembling.
She looked up at him, smiling broadly, still breathing hard. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Joe. That was great.”
After a long minute, he dared to slide his arm around her, draw her closer. Holding her, he closed his eyes.
For the first time in years, he went to sleep with a woman in his arms.
When he woke up, he was alone again.
“WHEW!” CLAIRE FLOPPED BACK ONTO THE PILLOWS. “I CAN’T remember the last time I got lucky in the morning.” She pushed the hair out of her eyes and smiled at Bobby. “You must really love me if you’ll kiss me before I brush my teeth.”
He rolled onto his side. His handsome face was crisscrossed with tiny pink sleep lines. “You still wonder, don’t you?”
“No,” she said too quickly.
He touched her cheek in a caress so soft it made her sigh. “I love you, Claire Cavenaugh. I’d like to kick the ass of the man who made you so afraid to believe me.”
She knew her smile was more than a little sad. There was nothing she could do about it. “It’s not just men.”
“But I can’t beat up your mother or your sister.”
She laughed at that. “Just prove Meg wrong. Nothing will make her crazier.”
“She’s trying, you know.”
Claire sat up in bed. “Yeah. I noticed. She made that crack about me not loving people, then left the party early.”
“She also bought you a dress that cost more than my car.”
“Money’s easy for Meg. She’s got tons. Just ask her.”
Bobby leaned back against the headboard. The blankets slid down his nak*d chest and pooled across his lap.
“She grew up with your mother, too, and she didn’t have a dad to pick up the slack. It had to be hard on her, raising you all those years and then watching Sam step in to replace her.”
“I can’t believe you’re defending her. She told me I was stupid to marry you.”
He gave her that slow-growing smile that always made her go weak in the knees. “Darlin’, you can’t hold that against her. She’s just trying to protect you.”
“Control me is more like it.”
“Come here,” he whispered.
She leaned toward him. Her bare br**sts breezed against his chest as they kissed. He slipped a hand around her neck and held her there, kissing her until she forgot their whole conversation. When she finally drew back, she was dizzy and breathing too hard.
“I’m getting to know you, Claire Cavenaugh-soon-to-be-Austin,” he whispered against her lips. “You had a headache after the wedding dress screwup and again last night. When Meghann hurts your feelings, you say you don’t care and start chewing aspirin. I’ve been there, darlin’. I know what matters is that she’s your sister. The only one you’ve got.”
Claire wanted to disagree but knew it was pointless. She did want to be close to Meg again. More and more often in the past few days, she’d found herself remembering the old Meg. The way they used to love each other. “I’m tired of the way we are together,” she admitted.
“No one can push my buttons like Meghann. She has a true gift for saying exactly the wrong thing.”
“Yeah. My dad was like that. We never could quite make it work between us. Now he’s gone, and I wish we’d tried harder.”
“Okay, Sigmund Freud. I’ll try talking to her. Again.”
“No more aspirin.”
She gave him another long, lingering kiss, then walked nak*d into the bathroom. By the time she’d finished showering and gotten dressed, he was gone.
She made her bed and walked across the hall to Ali’s room. Her daughter lay in bed, hidden beneath a blue-and-green pile of Little Mermaid sheets and comforters.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said, sitting on the edge of the twin bed. “Time to wake up.”
Alison stretched and rolled onto her back. “Did we get a kitten?”
“I thought I heard a kitty meowing this morning.”
Claire bit her lower lip to keep from smiling. Note to self: Come quietly. “Nope, no kitty. You must have been dreaming.”
“An’ I heard someone on the stairs.”
“I . . . uh . . . went down to make coffee.”
“Oh. Well, could we get a puppy? Amy Schmidt has one and her mom is ’lergic to dogs.”
“How about a goldfish?”
“Mo-om. The last goldfish got flushed down the toilet.”
“I’ll think about it, okay? Now hurry downstairs. I’m making blueberry pancakes for breakfast.”
Claire went down to start the coffee. By the time Alison came into the kitchen, dragging her Groovy Girl doll behind her, the eggs and pancakes were ready.
Alison climbed up onto her chair, positioned the doll in her lap, and started pouring syrup.
“That’s enough syrup,” Claire said as she flipped another pancake on the Teflon griddle.
“You and Bobby and Aunt Meghann took a shower together last night. How’dya all fit?”
Claire laughed. “It’s not a shower with water. It’s a party for people who are going to be married. You know, like a birthday party.”
“Didja play games?”
Thong underwear. Chocolate body paint. A giant box of rubbers. “Aunt Meghann gave us a Cuisinart.” At Ali’s confused look, she added, “It’s a way-cool blender.”
“Oh. Grandpa is taking me fishing today. Up at Tidwell Pond.”
“That’ll be fun.”
“He said you had wedding shit to do.”
“Alison Katherine. You know better than to repeat Grandpa’s bad words.”
“Oops.” Ali bent forward and started licking the syrup off her plate. In no time, it was clean. “Did you know that if you cut a worm in half, it’ll grow back?”
“I did know that.”
She pushed back from her seat. “But Lily France got her finger cut off an’ it didn’t grow back.” She frowned. “I think God likes worms better than Lily. It’s cuz she cuts in line at lunch.”
“Well, I don’t—”
“Bye, Mom!” Alison threw her a kiss and scampered off. The screen door banged shut behind her. A moment later, Claire heard her daughter’s high-pitched voice yell out, “I’m here, Grandpa. Were you lookin’ for me?”
Claire smiled and turned off the griddle, then poured herself a second cup of coffee and went out to the back porch. The slatted swing welcomed her.
She sat there, rocking gently, staring out at the silver curve of water that defined her back property line. The house was set well back from the river, on a rise of safety, but on a day like today, with the sky as blue as forget-me-nots and the grass turning golden from an unexpected week of sunlight, it was almost impossible to remember how dangerous the river could be.
The screen door screeched open and banged shut. Meghann stepped out onto the porch. She wore a fringed black peasant top and flare-legged jeans. Her hair, unbound, fell down her back in a riot of curls. She looked beautiful. “Morning.”