Love is always worth the risk . . .
Neil Healy was happy to be promoted to Air Force lieutenant colonel, but he's less than thrilled that the new job has brought him back to his hometown. The memories alone could kill a man, to say nothing of actually seeing the woman he never got over. Neil knew avoiding Becky Westmore would be impossible, but he didn't expect the chemistry between them to be as strong as ever.
All Becky wants this holiday season is to get through the month of December with her sanity intact. Not helping? Her ex-boyfriend's return to Glenwood Falls. Even after a decade apart, Neil still makes her feel in ways no other man has. But Christmas is a time for miracles, and maybe Becky's will be a second chance at first love.
The puck was flying straight toward her face, and for a brief second, Becky considered letting it hit her. She could use the forced nap, she thought, shifting in front of the goalie net as the puck drew closer. But losing wasn’t the Westmore way, and in the last second before it hit her, she raised her gloved hand and swiped the puck out of the air and back onto the ice.
Glancing at the scoreboard she saw there were ten minutes left in the last period of the amateur hockey league game. Only ten more minutes, then she was refusing to fill in for the regular goalie again. She was a thirty-two-year-old single mom with a to-do list that only grew at the end of each day; she didn’t have time for this.
Watching her brother Jackson steal the puck from the Fort Collins Renegades’ offensemen, she relaxed a little, knowing the puck would be the other goalie’s problem for a while.
She was right. They may as well have pulled her for the remaining minutes, as she hadn’t had to block any more shots from the Renegades.
When the last buzzer rang, she rushed to line up with her team. “Good game, good game…” she repeated all the way down through the players, who grumbled not so quietly about an unfair win.
She couldn’t fault their annoyance. With Jackson, a former NHL hopeful, on the team, no one else had much of a chance against the Glenwood Falls Hurricanes. Division champs for four years in a row, she wondered when the league would pass a motion banning her brother from playing.
Accepting a high five from him now, she said, “That’s it—I’m done. Do not ask me to play any more this season.”
He led the way off of the ice. “Oh, come on, you love to play.”
Removing her gloves, she shook her head, the slightly too big goalie helmet rattling around her ears. “No. You love to play hockey. I’m always forced to fill in because none of you jerks want to be goalie. It was same when we were kids,” she said, referring to him and her two other brothers, who had made it to the NHL. “I took one for the team then, and I took one for the Hurricanes whenever needed now, but I’m serious, Jackson. It’s December first.”
“Ah, the month from hell begins. You do this to yourself, you know. You take on everything and anything and then spend the month complaining about how you don’t get to enjoy the season like everyone else.”
Part of that was true, but it wasn’t as though she had a choice. In addition to her own holiday preparations, she was head of Widows of Heroes—a division of Operation Homefront that provided funding and care to military families as well as wives and children of emergency services personnel. This time of year, her workload doubled. A lot of responsibility rested on her shoulders to ensure that the families depending on the group’s support received it. “You could always help.”
He laughed as they reached the locker rooms. “You’d never let me anywhere near your perfect Christmas preparations. Bye, sis,” he said going into the men’s.
She sighed as she pushed her way into the empty women’s locker room. He was right. Taking on far too much and then obsessing about making everything perfect was the cause of her holiday stress, but ’twas the season…
Opening her locker, she checked her cell phone and cringed. This year’s additional anxiety factor had left a message. Sitting on the bench, she removed her hockey pads and helmet and tossed them into a duffel bag. Then dialed her voicemail.
“Hi, Becky, just checking in to see how the dress alterations are going. I’m dying to see it,” her former sister-in-law, Holly, said.
Alterations was putting it mildly. The white antique gown had been in need of a complete redesign. But Holly had insisted that wearing her future mother-in-law’s dress was what she wanted for her Christmas wedding.
Becky swallowed a lump of guilt. The truth was, she’d barely started them. Planning the Widows of Heroes Thanksgiving dinner had stolen a lot of time in November, and the December festivities would be even more work—the children’s party, the Christmas baskets…
“Anyway, let me know when I can stop by,” the message continued, “and uh…when the groomsmen might be able to stop by for their tux fittings.”
The slight nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach went from bad to worse. She’d agreed to take on the seamstress duties long before her ex-boyfriend Neil Healy had been named one of the groomsmen. An Air Force pilot who up until a month ago had been stationed in Florida, with active tours overseas, the groom hadn’t known if his cousin would be able to attend the wedding, let alone be in the wedding party.
Neil’s arrival in Glenwood Falls after twelve years away had her going crazy. Over the years, she’d thought about him a lot. She had even contemplated friending him on Facebook once or twice, usually after a glass of wine or two…or on nights she was feeling particularly lonely or nostalgic. But she hadn’t been able to bring herself to make the connection, to reach out.
However, she’d stared at his Facebook profile picture far too long to say she wouldn’t recognize him when she finally saw him. The photo of him with several other military officers, all dressed in their combat uniforms, had been a tempting screensaver pic. Men in uniform were droolworthy, and her ex-boyfriend took hot to a whole new level, which was why so far, avoiding him had been her main strategy. Working on the military base with Widows of Heroes had made such a feat challenging, but she suspected part of her success was due to the fact that he was trying equally hard to avoid her.
Well, their avoidance would have to come to an end…soon.
Sighing, she removed her hockey skates and tossed them into her bag.
The last time she’d seen Neil was the day he’d returned from basic training. Together and inseparable since the seventh grade, she’d hated every minute of him being away. But he’d reassured her that the ten weeks would pass quickly and then they would be starting a life together, moving in together once he returned. Twenty years old and so in love, she’d hoped he was right.
The news that he was being stationed in Miami, with his first six-month deployment happening within the year, had crushed her.
Miami was far enough. Afghanistan may as well have been a different planet.
He’d pleaded with her to go with him, but she’d been in the middle of her third semester of college, and with his pending deployment, she hadn’t seen the point of moving to Miami. Being without him in Glenwood Falls, where she had friends and family was hard enough. Miami—all alone—would be hell.
She’d had a lot of time to think in the weeks he’d been away. She knew she couldn’t deal with a long-distance relationship, with unreliable communication and silences for weeks on end. The danger and uncertainty of a military career, the tours to war-torn territory, had made her feel sick to her stomach, and the instability and the possibility of moving from base to base wasn’t a life she thought she could handle.
Holding back tears, she’d suggested they take a break.
“Break up, you mean?” His accusatory stare had sucked the breath from her lungs.
“No…Just take some time to think about what we both want,” she’d said, feeling hopeless and conflicted.
“I thought you wanted a life with me.”
“I do, but I’m not sure I’m strong enough to make it work this way. I’ll be miserable and worried sick every time you leave, and you know I don’t do well with uncertainty.” She liked her small-town life with its predictability just fine. Neil was different. He was so brave and had always talked about leaving Glenwood Falls and seeing the world. She’d naïvely hoped they could overcome their differences, but now those differences were driving them apart.
“And you’ve started a new career, a new chapter…maybe you’ll realize that I’m not what you need, either.”
Letting Neil walk away had been the toughest thing she’d ever done, but she had to believe it had been for the best. They’d been in love as teenagers, and young love had a way of fading into adulthood, when life got complicated and choices had to be made. Though knowing that wouldn’t make seeing him now any easier.
She sighed, gathered her things, and shut the locker door.
Then, knowing Holly would be expecting an answer, she picked up the phone and texted her back, purposely ignoring the part about the groomsmen.
Don’t worry about the dress. I promise, you won’t even recognize it.
Especially if she let too much time pass and had to buy a completely new one to pass off in its place.
# # #
“What’s with the sunglasses? It’s been overcast for the last week,” Neil’s co-worker Blake asked as he entered their shared office on base early the next morning.
“I can hope, can’t I?” he muttered. It felt as though he’d barely seen any sign of the sun since he’d moved back to Glenwood Falls the month before. These thick, heavy clouds were depressing. The view of the mountains from the valley was one of things he’d missed while living in Florida, and he’d yet to see it. He remembered Colorado winters being cold, but the sun was usually shining at least.
“Not to destroy your hopes, man, but according to the forecast, we’re expecting snow—lots of it—before the sun is expected to make an appearance again. You’re tempting fate riding that bike this long.”
Neil was holding on as long as possible, the idea of storing the motorcycle only making his depression worse. But the snow would force him to reconsider his mode of transportation. His once-a-week commute to the Pueblo County Airport where he trained air force combat systems officers in high- and low-level flight procedures would require a reliable vehicle. Or at least something with a seatbelt. He sighed as he tucked his motorcycle helmet under his desk.
A fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, he’d been lucky to have served his country from the warm, sunny military base in Miami for twelve years. However, the transfer back to Colorado had been required for the promotion to lieutenant colonel.
His commanding officer had thought he was doing him a favor by pushing through the paperwork to have him back in his hometown in time for the holidays. Truth was, other than his cousin Cliff, he had no family here, not since his grandmother’s death a few years before, and being back only reminded him of that void.
Christmas brought a reason to celebrate, a source of excitement in an otherwise quiet, uneventful town, and it was not the place his lonely heart wanted to be.
“Sorry I missed the hockey game the other night. I heard you almost played well,” Blake said, tossing several new recruit folders on his desk.
If by “almost played well” he meant “managed to stay on his feet on the ice,” then okay, sure. Along with his added responsibilities in his job, he’d unwillingly adopted a position on the Air Force hockey team, despite not being on a pair of skates since leaving home. Now, surfing was his idea of a good time. Freezing his ass off, wearing ten pounds of hockey gear, and struggling not to fall flat on his face was not. “Does anyone play well against a Westmore?” he said, refusing to take all the blame for the team’s loss. Jackson Westmore was practically a professional hockey player. The guy had spent years playing for the Colorado East Coast Hockey League team before giving it up when he’d realized the local league was as far as he would go. Now he coached the local junior team and made all other players in the adult amateur league groan whenever it was their turn to take on the Hurricanes.
“Good point,” Blake said.
“Does Becky ever play?” Neil asked before he could stop himself. His ex-girlfriend used to play almost as much as her brothers, being forced into it by the hockey-crazed family. She was fantastic in net, but had never been serious enough about the sport to try for the women’s hockey league.
He’d yet to run into her in the four weeks he’d been back—mainly because he avoided going anywhere she might be. He’d caught a glimpse of her the week before at the Thanksgiving dinner, and he’d hightailed it out of there. No amount of turkey and gravy was worth the awkwardness a face-to-face was sure to generate.
They’d ended things a long time ago, and by now the idea of seeing her shouldn’t hold any tension, but he found his chest tightening whenever he remembered that she was working most days in the community hall office—just three right turns away.
“She plays goalie sometimes when they’re short a player.” Blake shot him a look. “Have you talked to her since you got back?”
In a small town, where most everyone had gone to school together, it didn’t surprise him that Blake remembered their history. Together since junior high, when he’d taken her to the winter formal, their relationship had lasted nine years before he joined the Air Force the year after graduating high school.
Everyone thought they would be married with a house full of kids by now.
Things hadn’t exactly worked out the way everyone—including him—had expected. “Nah…” His cell phone chimed with a text and picking it up, he groaned.
Holly. Cliff’s fiancée. Again.
Agreeing to be in his cousin’s wedding would be the death of him. He really should have insisted there was no rush with his transfer.
Have you stopped by to see Becky about your tux yet? he read.
This was the third time she’d asked him that week. He couldn’t put it off forever, but he wasn’t looking forward to it, either. Sure, a lot of time had passed, but he’d never completely gotten over her. He knew sooner or later they’d see one another, he’d been hoping for later.
And certainly not this way. Was it too late to get out of the wedding party?
Not yet. But I will, he texted back.
“What’s the holdup? Isn’t the wedding in a few weeks? Are you avoiding Becky?” Blake asked, reading the text messages over his shoulder.
There was no privacy in a small town. None. Neil tucked the phone away. “I was.”
The washing machine chimed at the same time the dishwasher started to beep.
Becky sighed as she stood. Having Holly’s dress ready to wear by December 23 would be a holiday miracle.
She collected the piece she’d been sewing from the machine and laid it aside, the beadwork reflecting the late evening light coming through the blinds. Closing the door behind her, she left the sewing room. “Taylor, pick one—dishes or clothes,” she called down the hallway.
“Can’t. I’m doing homework,” came the reply.
Yeah, right. Opening the bedroom door confirmed what she suspected. Her daughter was wrapping the new red hockey tape she’d bought with her weekly allowance around the blade of her stick. “Clothes or dishes?” Becky asked.
The eight-year-old sighed as she set the stick aside as if it were porcelain and followed her out of the room. “Dishes,” she muttered.
“Great. Thank you.” Watching her daughter grumble as she went to the kitchen, Becky ignored the slight wave of guilt she felt. She wished she didn’t have to rely on Taylor so much for help, but with her work with Widows of Heroes keeping her days busy, the sewing projects she took on for extra money occupying most of her evenings, taking care of her home, raising a daughter alone, and somehow finding time to eat and sleep, she couldn’t do everything.
She had no idea when she would have time to decorate her own home for the holidays, but she refused to leave it until the last minute like she had the year before. They’d been decorating the tree on Christmas Eve instead of enjoying their tradition of holiday movies and hot chocolate, and the season had seemed rushed and underappreciated. Not this year, she thought, shoving aside the massive to-do list monster peeking around the corner. But she would need her daughter’s help.
“Children are supposed to help around the house. You all had chores.” Her own mother’s words when she’d voiced her guilty feelings were not as much comfort as she’d like.
The difference was that Beverly Westmore had given her four kids chores to give them a sense of responsibility. Becky depended on her daughter’s help, and the fact that the little girl had lost her father at the age of four…well, maybe she had enough responsibility to contend with.
Becky squared her shoulders and swallowed the lump in her throat as she entered the laundry room.
And slipped on soapy water.
She blinked as her ass crashed to the floor with a hard thud, nearly knocking the wind from her lungs. What the hell? Next to her, the washing machine was now vibrating violently and making an odd rattling noise. Water leaked over the top and bubbles gathered on the lid.
Grabbing the doorframe behind her, she pulled herself to her feet and rushed to unplug the out-of-control machine from the wall. The rattling and vibrating stopped. Damn. A broken appliance was the last thing she needed right before the holidays.
Money was never tight with Rob’s pension from the police department and her salary from Widows of Heroes, but it wasn’t exactly flowing, either, and she’d peeked at Taylor’s letter to Santa already and knew it contained a lot of high-priced hockey gear.
Time to put on her handyman hat. Rolling up the sleeves of her sweatshirt, she opened the lid.
“Need some help?”
The unexpected sound of a deep male voice made her jump and lose her balance once again on the wet floor. Two hands gripped her shoulders to steady her, and she immediately wished he had let her fall. Feeling her cheeks on fire, she turned to face Neil.
His profile picture did not fully capture the hotness standing in front of her. Time had been far too good to him. The young, boyish face had been replaced by a rugged handsomeness that would turn more than one head in the small town, and she immediately felt a pang of irrational jealousy. His solid, square jaw with just the right amount of stubble had always been her weakness, and his dark brown eyes held a look of uncertainty mixed with a friendly familiarity as though no time at all had passed since she’d last gazed into them.
Becky folded her arms across her body, putting up a physical barrier to match the internal one that had immediately sprang up around her heart at the unexpected feelings spurred by the sight of her ex. “What are you doing here? How’d you get in?” Small town or not, she never left her door unlocked. After having a police officer for a husband, she’d known not to adopt a false sense of security.
“Your daughter let me in.” He surveyed the mess of the laundry room. “Washing machine problems?” he asked, removing his jacket to reveal a tight black T-shirt haphazardly tucked into one side of a hip-hugging pair of jeans.
“Oh no…it’s no…” She clamped her lips together. She couldn’t even remember the question. What was it about his big, muscular arms that turned her brain to complete mush?
Maybe the fact that she still remembered what it felt like to be wrapped up in them?
“Let me look,” Neil said, moving her away by her shoulders and stepping carefully into the water on the floor. It sloshed under his boots and soaked the frayed hem of his faded jeans.
Riding boots. He’d always talked about owning a motorcycle. An adrenaline junkie from an early age, he’d owned his first dirt bike at fourteen, and the sight of him on it had done crazy things to her teenage hormones. She remembered sneaking out after curfew to ride on the back of it, holding on tight to him as they sped along the empty dirt roads at night, stopping to make out near the riverbank…“That’s not necessary. I got it under control.”
He ignored her. Opening the lid, he looked inside, then reached into the water, up to his biceps. Sexy, toned, still-tanned-from-the-Miami-sun biceps.
“Really, I’m sure you have places to be. I’ll call someone if it’s something I can’t fix on my own.” Since ending his pursuit of a hockey career, Jackson flipped houses for a living and was quite the handyman. He was her go-to for these kind of things.
“It’s okay. I’m here anyway,” Neil said, not sounding all too pleased about it.
Well, neither was she. She certainly hadn’t been expecting a visit from the hottest man to ever leave her weak in the knees. And she definitely would not have invited him in and allowed him to see her messy laundry room. But here he was. Standing in a puddle of water, his arm disappearing in her washing machine, looking like a sexy gift from handyman heaven.
And she was wearing Star Wars pajama pants and a holiday-themed sweatshirt featuring Grumpy Cat that said, dashing through the snow…get the f*ck out of my way.
Not exactly the way one fantasizes about running into an ex.
She was going to have to have the “don’t open the door to strangers” talk with Taylor again.
“I think I found the problem,” he said, pulling a thin piece of black, lacy fabric from the machine. “These were wrapped around the agitator.” He opened the thong, stretching the thin waistband between his hands. “Nice.”
Her mortification obviously knew no bounds. She yanked them out of his hands and tucked the wet fabric under her arm. The ridiculous underwear had cost more than all of her sensible cotton briefs combined, and they’d been the only thing at Holly’s bachelorette lingerie party she could buy in a show of support.
She’d worn them under duress earlier that week when she’d had nothing else clean. They were horrible. The lace, the string between her ass cheeks…She shuddered at the memory of how they’d ridden up past her jeans when she’d bent over at the grocery store to pick up an apple that had rolled off the fruit display table, and she’d caught the fifteen-year-old stock boy, Al, staring.
She should have burned them instead of washing them because she would never wear them again. “Thank you for discovering the problem,” she said through clenched teeth. “Even though I said I had it under control.”
He ignored her comment. “Why don’t you plug it back in and see if that fixes things?”
Well, another thong wouldn’t be caught in there, if that’s what he was hoping. A memory of the lingerie she used to wear for him flashed in her mind—matching bra and panty sets, one-piece teddies…The look in his eyes seeing her in those things had made her feel like the sexiest woman in the world. And the way he’d slowly remove the garments from her body had sparked a passion, an intensity, an undeniable need…
Her eyes met his now and she could see her own thoughts reflected in his expression. He glanced away quickly, but it was too late—she knew that look well. She wasn’t the only one struggling with the past.
She plugged in the machine and it hummed as it resumed its cycle as though nothing had happened. As if the ground beneath her feet hadn’t just trembled.
“Great,” Neil said. “Just FYI—You’re supposed to put those things in a garment washing bag.”
“Suddenly a connoisseur of women’s delicates?” Damn, that sounded jealous even to her ears.
“Twelve years is enough time for anyone to change.”
Was it? Then why did things feel so much the same when she looked at him? Too much time had passed, too much life had happened for both of them—she couldn’t claim to know the man he was now. Yet, her heart insisted it did.
He glanced around when she remained silent. “Do you have a mop in here somewhere?”
Oh hell no. There was no way he was cleaning up this mess. “I’ve got it. You’ve done enough.” A little too much, in fact.
He stood there staring at her, as though years of words unsaid were weighing on him. She held her breath, not liking the unsettling energy that surrounded them, making her hypersensitive to his presence.
He looked too good, the scent of his familiar cologne smelled too good, and the memories coming to mind were reminding her just how good he could be.
Which was bad.
She cleared her throat. “Was there a reason you stopped by?”
He nodded. “The tux fitting. Holly said you were in charge of that and asked me to come see you.”
“Right. Yes.” She glanced at the mess. “I’ll deal with this later.”
“I can wait.”
And have him in her home longer? No way. “That’s okay. Follow me.”
Opening the sewing room door a second later, she grabbed one of the garment bags from Mac’s Tuxedo—the shop in Denver where Holly had purchased the four groomsmen tuxes for a steal since they were going out of business. She claimed she was doing the men a favor by not having them rent one for the event, but Becky had had to bite her tongue about the extra work it was, tailoring four tuxes to fit four very differently shaped men. “The bathroom’s down the hall on the right. Just put this on and I’ll pin you…” Her cheeks flushed. “Pin the fabric.”
Once he disappeared down the hall, she checked her reflection in the three-way mirror. Her unruly light brown waves were extra unruly and her makeup-free face looked old and tired. Unlike her ex, whose laugh lines only enhanced his gorgeous face.
She released a slow, deep breath. She’d expected this moment—seeing him for the first time—to be difficult, but she hadn’t expected the tightening in her lungs or the odd sense of longing she felt. There was so much she wanted to say, yet she was tongue-tied and caught off guard. They couldn’t exactly pick up where they’d left off, yet starting over with a new friendship seemed impossible with their shared history. This was the guy who’d been there when she’d gotten her braces put on and removed, the one who’d taken her to every school dance since junior high, who’d watched her blow out her birthday candles every year until she turned twenty. The man she’d spent countless nights talking about a future with…No, starting over was not an option.
Which left them where?
Hearing his footsteps in the hallway, she moved away from the mirror and grabbed her pins. “How does it fit?” she asked, relieved to see that the tux fit better than she’d expected.
Relieved and flustered.
In the black pants and sleek, form-fitting jacket, Neil looked amazing, even with his T-shirt under it. Her mouth went dry and her palms sweat a little. As a lovesick teenager she’d always envisioned that one day she’d see him in a tux.
Not exactly like this, though.
“Okay, just step up here and I’ll mark the hemming.”
He stood on the block in front of the mirror and was silent as she marked and pinned the length of the pants. Her hands shook slightly and she prayed he wouldn’t notice the bumpy line she’d left with the white chalk.
Standing, she lifted the back of the jacket to inspect the waistline, and damn if she didn’t sneak a peek at the ass she’d always loved.
Yep. Still round and tight. Still perfect. She swallowed hard. “Does the waist feel okay?” she asked.
His gaze met hers in the mirror. He cleared his throat. “Feels a little loose.”
She collected the fabric and cinched it in the middle, careful not to let her fingers brush against the exposed skin of his lower back. “Better?”
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, but his voice sounded slightly hoarse, as though their close proximity was getting to him as well.
She marked it quickly, then released the fabric and let the jacket fall. She hesitated, staring at his broad back.
Just treat him like any other groomsman.
Reluctantly, she ran her hands along his shoulders and fought to control her thundering pulse. She felt him stiffen slightly beneath her touch and heard him release a deep breath.
The scent of his cologne filled the room around her, and she wondered if he’d applied it for her sake.
Had his sexy black T-shirt and jeans been on purpose as well?
She wanted to strangle Holly. A heads-up about his visit would have been appreciated. At least give her a chance to even the playing field a little.
With what? A freaking evening gown?
She wasn’t twenty years old anymore, and life was clearly displayed on her face and in the new curves of her body.
“The jacket seems okay.” She glanced at him through the mirror. “Arms by your sides. Length looks good.” She stared at his hands and her mouth went dry. A simple touch from them used to have her feeling so much. The way he’d tuck her hair behind her ears before kissing her, his warm palms grazing her skin, or the way his fingers would cover hers on the gear shift of his truck as he drove down backroads to their favorite make-out spot. She’d marveled at how quickly they could go from hard and strong when he worked on old dirt bikes and cars in his small garage to tender and loving when he was touching her. She cleared her throat. “That’s it. You’re done.”
He looked relieved when she moved away. “So, that’s it. We’re good?”
“Yeah. All good.” Her gaze met his and held until she was certain her lungs had run out of air. “You can change now,” she said quickly, busying herself with putting away the extra pins.
“Right.” As he walked toward the door, he stopped. “Hey, is this the dress?”
Oh great. “Yes.”
“Shit, that’s ugly.”
Her mouth gaped. “It was your aunt’s dress.”
“And it was probably ugly when she wore it, too.”
The laugh that escaped her helped to ease the tension in the room.
At least for half a second.
Taking two quick strides toward her, his hands were on her face. Her eyes widened at the feel of the rough palms against her skin. She opened her mouth to speak, but his lips pressed against hers before she could process what was happening.
What was he doing? What was she doing? That was the better question as her arms circled his neck. And how did the sensation of his mouth on hers feel so damn familiar after all these years?
Shockingly, the anticipated urge to pull away didn’t appear. Instead, she was more conscious of him than she had ever been of anything in her life. Caught in the moment, her sensitivity to every aspect of him was magnified—the glimpse of chocolate brown beneath his half-closed lids, the light stubble across his jaw, the faint trace of a scar above his right eyebrow that hadn’t been there years before. His lips were soft, yet demanding, as though searching for answers, and she willingly opened herself up to anything he might find.
When he pulled away a moment later and his lips brushed across hers, she reached for him instead of letting go. All traces of common sense had vanished as the sensations took over.
He hesitated briefly before connecting their mouths again, his hands tangling in her hair. Pressing her hands to his chest, she felt the contours of his muscles, hard and smooth, through the material of his T-shirt, and her body tingled with a longing she hadn’t felt in four years, two months, and ten days. Or maybe it was longer.
The thought caused her to step back.
He moved away quickly, his hands falling away from her.
“Damn. That was awful,” he muttered, running a hand over his face and chin.
“Wow.” First, he kissed her out of nowhere—a mind-blowing, knee-weakening kiss that had stirred long repressed emotions and desires—and then he insulted her?
“Not the kiss itself…just the kiss. I should get out of here.” He turned to leave. “Sorry about that.” Without waiting for a response, he left the room, and a second later, she heard the bathroom door close down the hall.
Releasing a deep breath, her mind raced. Why had she allowed that to happen? What was wrong with them? The first time alone together in years and the sexual tension between them had them acting like hormonal teenagers. She’d dated several men since Rob’s death, but she couldn’t even remember kissing them beyond a quick goodnight peck on the cheek. No one had spurred her body to react the way Neil just had.
The way he always had.
Hearing him approach, she met him in the hall. “Great, thank you,” she said, taking the tux. “You can pick it up from Holly’s next week.” Inviting him back there wasn’t happening, and she ignored her disappointment at the thought.
His expression clouded, but he nodded as he headed toward the front door.
Opening it, he stepped outside, and she shivered as the early December mountain breeze blew her shoulder-length hair across her face. She tried to tuck it behind her ears, but her wispy bangs flew right back into her eyes. Unfortunately, they didn’t block the sexiest view on the planet—Neil Healy walking away toward his motorcycle.
How much longer could he get away with driving that thing anyway? Come on, snow!
As he reached for his helmet, he paused. “About what just happened…”
She shook her head. “We really don’t have to talk about it.” In fact, she’d be willing to never talk about it. Her flushed expression was already saying far too much.
“Okay.” He went to put on the helmet, but stopped again.
Oh God, just drive away. For some reason, she was unable to close the door and go inside.
“But I want you to know I didn’t mean to insult you by saying the kiss was terrible.”
Awful was his exact wording. “It’s fine, really.” He looked ready to try to explain again, so she continued before he could. “I should get back to Holly’s dress.”
“Maybe we could go to dinner or something sometime?” He appeared as shocked by the question as she was.
She sighed. “Just no.”
Neil nodded slowly. “He’s a lucky guy,” he said, a hint of jealousy evident in his voice.
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Whoever that thong was for. He’s a lucky guy,” he said, putting on his helmet and revving the bike.
She wondered what he’d think if he knew this “lucky guy” was fifteen-year-old Al at the grocery store and that Neil’s unexpected, untimely kiss was the best action she’d actually gotten in years.
# # #
He couldn’t get out of the driveway fast enough.
What the hell had he been thinking? Kissing her, asking her to dinner. What happened to steering clear of the woman who broke his heart twelve years ago? The woman he’d been planning on proposing to once he returned from basic training, only to have her end things instead. He sped away from the house.
Becky hadn’t wanted a military life back then, and he suspected her opinion on that hadn’t changed over the years. She hadn’t liked the danger his job entailed, the tours overseas, and the uncertainty of a future with him.
But then she’d married a cop.
Anger simmered below the surface of so many conflicting emotions. She hadn’t been willing to even take a chance on a life with him, but then she’d walked straight into the arms of someone else whose career was just as dangerous.
Of course her concerns had been horribly validated. He’d heard about Rob’s death through his cousin, and he’d been tempted to reach out to Becky, to offer his condolences…but after so long with no contact between them, it hadn’t felt right.
Oh, but kissing her the first time you see her in twelve years feels right?
The problem was, it had. Just seeing her had made his heart pound in his chest, and when she’d touched his shoulders in the tuxedo jacket, his body had ached to feel her hands on him everywhere. Old memories had lingered in the tension between them, and the moment he’d heard her laugh—a laugh he’d once have done anything to hear—all bets were off. He hadn’t been able to control the impulse that had come over him.
He hadn’t wanted to.
Hell, he’d wanted to do far more than kiss her. The hurt he’d felt over the years obviously couldn’t compete with the longing for her that hadn’t faded over time.
She’d once been his best friend, the person who understood him best, who was there for him during his father’s own tours overseas with the Air Force, and she’d been right there by his side when his dad hadn’t come home. An only child himself, Becky and her brothers had been like a second family to him. She used to be home for him—the one place he’d felt grounded, stable, and sure.
He shivered as the icy breeze ripped through his leather jacket. But then an image of the black lace thong he’d rescued from the washing machine made his body rush with heat. What he wouldn’t give to see her in those. Even dressed in pajama pants and a hilariously offensive sweatshirt, he’d been attracted to her. The same beautiful blue eyes and untamable hair framing her gorgeous face. And when his hands had gripped her waist, an image of the spectacular body he knew was under the baggy clothing had awakened a craving in him he hadn’t had for a woman in years. He unzipped his jacket a little, exposing his flushed neck, and sighed. Apparently the only thing that would help him survive this cold Colorado winter was inappropriate thoughts about the love of his life.