Burned

PAGE RATING: R

Whispering Cove, Book 4

Vic Hayes is content with life in Whispering Cove. She owns a successful salon, has great friends and her perfectly manicured nail is on the pulse of the town’s gossip. For real happiness, she’s only missing one thing—a man. Settling for less than the perfect man, though, isn’t in her nature. He just has to see her as more than his best friend.

Widower Hauk Michaelsen always dreamed of escaping Whispering Cove, until single fatherhood, too young, made it impossible. He enjoys his life as owner of the small town pub. Friends, gossip, and his young daughter keep things jumping. He would do anything for his little girl, but he can’t give her the one thing she desires most—a mother.

When Vic and Hauk are teamed up for a Fall Festival project, sparks ignite suppressed flames. Testing boundaries they’ve never crossed, they find themselves eager to risk more—if Vic can convince Hauk that history won’t be repeated if he takes another chance on love.

This book has been previously published as part of an anthology series with Cathryn Fox and Mackenzie McKade.

The full story will be re-released right here.

PROLOGUE

A barnacle-suckin’ hand with a king and a six.

Byron Mitchell placed his second card facedown atop the first and reached for his tumbler of rum. It was a shoddy beginning, but he had bluffed his way out of worse. Then again, so had his weekly poker buddies Harold Adair and Errol Wilson.

Distraction. He could win with the right distraction, and these days the same distraction never failed. “How are those great-grandbabies growin’?”

“Fast.” Harold’s mouth curled into a smile as he laid his second card facedown. “Andie’s big enough to be having twins, but she won’t tell me if there’s more than one. Says wondering is what I get for meddling.”

Shaking his head, Errol placed his second card facedown with his first. “Place your bets.”

They tossed chips into the small pile. Errol dealt round three.

“It’s not meddlin’,” Harold mumbled.

“Women see it different,” Byron mused. At least according to his wife Ruth and Dani, his new granddaughter by marriage. Not that either of them were complaining that he’d intervened in Braydon’s life plan to sail in solitude. “Dani and Braydon are supposed to be paintin’ the nursery this week. They won’t tell me what they’re havin’.” Byron pursed his lips and swirled the rum in his tumbler. “They keep sayin’ I’d have too many thoughts on names.”

“Women are—”

“The reason we have babies,” Errol cut Harold off.

“My Katy,” Harold slipped in with a grin, “gave me that same line when she told me to stop coddling her.”

The left corner of Errol’s mouth twitched. The tell made Byron want to smile. His pal had a nice hand, but he was thinking more about his granddaughter and when she might bring him news of a baby. The distraction was working.

“Not that she’s fessing up to carrying my grandbaby,” Harold finished.

“They think they’re invincible.” Byron swirled the liquor in his tumbler again. “Maybe we should let ’em think we’re leavin’ them alone.”

“How do you mean?” Errol dealt the last round and they all placed their bets.

Whatever Errol had dealt himself wasn’t a great hand. He wasn’t revealing any of his tells like Harold. Their tells got bigger the better their hand.

“I think it’s time to get some other youngsters paired off,” said Byron. “Hauk is living in fear of reliving his past. And little Sophie deserves a momma. It’s time he figured out he can have it all.”

Harold nodded. “Reece has been running from Tabatha long enough.”

“And Adam is blind to Josie. Sees her only as his best friend’s sister. Doesn’t know how good they could be together.” Errol’s smile broadened. “With the Fall Festival coming, there’s a lot to plan.”

“They won’t be as easy to maneuver as the others. They’ll be on the lookout.”

“And the festival will be a great distraction.” Errol chuckled as he shuffled the cards he’d dealt himself. “We’ll give them jobs and watch the sparks fly.”

“Those boys won’t know what hit ’em.”

“Neither will the girls.”

Byron nodded, liking the idea more and more. It was always fun to see the young’ns get twisted up over finding love. “The bet?”

“The fastest match with the least intervention?” Harold offered.

“The most creative setup,” Byron countered.

“No. These kids know each other, so they only have to let go their fool notions about each other to see what they’ll have.” Errol poured more rum into his tumbler. “The match must be made before the end of the Fall Festival.”

They all nodded as their budding schemes swam in their eyes.

“Loser eats barnacles,” Errol tossed out.

“Loser buys the rum for a month,” Harold added.

Byron took a drink and watched the plan unfurl in his mind as clearly as the stars awakening in the fall sky. One thing he’d learned over the years was how to read the town’s youngsters. Hauk Michaelsen with his charcoal-tough heart, which was more fragile than he thought, was so used to what was in front of him, so blind to the woman who loved him he would never see Victoria Hayes coming. “Good thing you two have a taste for ’em.”

“Chase ’em down with a little rum and they won’t be so bad,” Errol laughed.

CHAPTER ONE

Hauk Michaelsen swiped a rag across the teakwood bar as a chilled, liquor-and-bar-food scented breeze swept through the open wall panels. Aimee Smith, his newest waitress and only employee who hadn’t called in sick, cleared dishes off the few remaining tables and carried them into the kitchen. Fortunately for them both it had been a quiet night.

“Nothin’ like couples in love and snuggled together.”

Hauk smiled at old man Byron Mitchell and kept wiping as he worked his way down to the rum bottles. At most, he would have two minutes before he was asked for a refill. He’d guess closer to thirty seconds.

As if on cue, Byron raised his glass to signal for more. “You almost had that.”

“A couple times,” Hauk acknowledged. Loving the man as much as he loved his own grandparents in Norway, Hauk grinned as he poured more rum for Byron.

Hauk didn’t like talking about his past, avoided it when he could, so hoping to sidetrack Byron, he asked, “You planning more matchups?”

“Doesn’t look like they need any help.” Byron waggled his brows at the couples in the bar. One swayed on the dance floor to a country ballad on the jukebox. Another near the open wall heeded the encouragement of the wind and huddled closer together, despite the warmth they would likely feel from the outdoor heaters. “Now you…you haven’t been with anyone since Jean Marie.”

“Nope. And it’s going to stay that way.” Hauk shook his head and backed up a step. Even if he did relationships, he didn’t have time for one. “You aren’t going to pair me off.”

“As if the idea of a good woman waiting when you get home is such a bad one.”

“There isn’t a woman good enough in Whispering Cove.” Or safe enough.

“You work too hard. The right partner would ease some of the burden you carry. A woman who would be a good momma for your Sophie.”

“My life isn’t a burden.” Mostly. Though the mention of his daughter, who was in bed sick in their apartment upstairs, hit that soft spot in his soul that only Sophie could command. The spot that made something inside him tremble with the need to give her everything she wanted and the mother she needed.

“Maybe not, but your Sophie deserves better.”

“Better than what I’ve given her?” A suddenly awakened affront strained against his tone. He didn’t care.

“Better than a mother who walks out on her.”

Krista hadn’t been willing to share herself with their daughter. He couldn’t deny that any more than he could argue against the importance of Sophie having a woman role model. They were lucky to have Vic, who his daughter adored, as a friend. And though he found her attractive—outright sexy—she was only a friend. He couldn’t let Vic become more, and he couldn’t give Sophie a mother.

Only once since Krista had he allowed a woman close enough to begin thinking of her as a mother for his daughter. Jean Marie had been everything he thought Sophie would need, but a rock-climbing accident had robbed them of the chance to find out.

No woman since had moved him enough to make trying worth the risk.

Still, watching his friends get mated up and hitched, watching them start their own families had him thinking about forgotten dreams and the things he’d planned for his life. Those memories, and the tragedies and hardships they’d circled around to, inevitably led him to thoughts of what he’d actually ended up with. A life without companionship, because it was the only way to keep things uncomplicated.

He’d needed uncomplicated after his wife’s body had been found battered on the beach and he’d been investigated. The town had been behind him then, just as they were now. Even with the occasional, lingering whispers of the bad luck surrounding women in his life, living in Whispering Cove was much better than anything he could have planned.

“It’s a disgrace, I tell you.”

Hauk leaned against the bar and prepared to listen to Byron rant. The man believed everyone between twenty-five and forty should be married and growing families, but Hauk wasn’t going to give him the pleasure of a direct acknowledgment. Not that he thought any response was safe. “What’s a disgrace?”

“That poor girl still hasn’t found the right man, and with the barnacle-suckin’ men trollin’ around town, she never will.”

Hauk smiled. Byron might claim not to be matchmaking, but someone had caught his attention. As long as he was left alone, Hauk didn’t care. “Which girl?”

“Poor Victoria.” Byron studied his rum, shaking his head as if tragically saddened. “I saw her out with Sean last night.”

“Sean’s a nice guy.” He’d been a couple years ahead of Hauk in school and had taken over the family auto repair garage when his dad had fallen ill. He had stayed on even after his dad recovered and returned to work. He was the kind of guy Byron would normally choose for a woman settled in the town like Vic, though it was a little strange that she hadn’t mentioned him. “Seems like they’d get along.”

“Nice?” Byron set his tumbler down without taking a drink. “Nice isn’t what that girl needs. No. She needs a man who will challenge her and take her on adventures. She needs a man who will dance with her.”

“Dancing and adventures?” Vic had said many times her greatest adventure was listening to the gossip gibbons at her salon. They never bored her and she could hear all the good stuff without going anywhere.

“Do you know that girl has never left this town? Her entire life has been here. She doesn’t even own a passport.”

“The same is true about a large portion of our population.” Aside from a couple of trips to visit family in Norway, the same was true for himself. And he knew Vic didn’t care about travel any more than she wanted to move away from Whispering Cove. Knowing that didn’t mean he wanted to listen to Byron talk about her needs. “We aren’t all like Braydon.”

“Pfft. That boy wasted nearly half his life sailing the seas. He should have been settling down with a good woman. Starting a family.”

Predictable old man. A mention of his grandson and new granddaughter—because he would never consider Dani an in-law—was all it took to sidetrack him from Vic’s marital status. “Seems he’s doing just that.”

“Now that Dani got ’hold of him.”

The doc wasn’t the only one who’d convinced Braydon it was time to settle down. Not that he’d really settled. He’d just established a home to come back to when he was between assignments, though he’d take his new wife with him on more trips if she had a doctor to cover her patients in her absence.

“Braydon isn’t a concern now.”

Hauk waved good night to a few of his customers heading out the door. The others seemed to be finishing up their drinks as the night darkened and the cedar-scented votives Aimee had chosen for the night burned down. She’d claimed it would complement the smells of liquor and beer. He didn’t care about that as long as people were spending money.

“But Vic is?”

Vic.

Petite and larger than life on a high, she drew people to her. Her dating life had never bothered him, but suddenly the thought of her dating a very nice man slipped through his mind with an unsettling discomfort that lodged in his throat. It was a discomfort he somehow knew had little to do with what she meant to Sophie. In fact, it felt much more personal. And frustrating, because risking their friendship, putting her in danger if he fell for her intimately, couldn’t happen.

Vic.

She was upstairs likely tucking Sophie into bed. It was something he’d normally have gone up to do, especially with her having come down with a fever that morning. But with the staff out sick he’d called in reinforcements. Vic was always there when he or Sophie needed her.

“Actually, no.” Byron waved a hand over his tumbler. “The Fall Festival, though, that could be.”

Hauk shook his head clear to focus on the conversation he’d lost momentary track of. Braydon and Vic weren’t concerns. What…?

“How’s the festival a concern?” Everyone in town chipped in to help pull off the festival. Some donated supplies, others labor or skills at planning and promotion.

Hauk had worked on a couple of booths and the stage, and if the timing worked, assuming his employees got over their flu and could return to work, he hoped to turn the pub into a haunted house. It would take time to do it right though, and he hadn’t managed to pull it off yet in the last five years he’d been collecting stuff.

“We’re only a few weeks away and our headlining entertainer just cancelled. We’ve put feelers out, but so far no one has stepped forward with a willingness to take the gig.”

“You know, tomorrow night is karaoke night in here.” He still wasn’t sure how the customers had talked him into setting up that particular torment on a weekly basis. “Assuming everyone hasn’t come down with the flu, you might find some nice talent there.”

“It could be fun to have locals onstage.” Byron rubbed his chin. “I bet Vic would know of some prospects.”

“She does seem to know as much as you about our town and its people.”

“She’s a special woman, that one.”

“Yeah.” She’d stood by him and Sophie when the gossip about him swelled, which seemed to happen when new people moved into town. Understanding him because of her own losses, she occasionally told him people were wrong about him, that he was wrong about himself. She’d told him a few times before he wasn’t tainted, and a woman wasn’t doomed to tragic death just because she fell for him.

“Then it’s settled.” With one short, steady nod, Byron slapped the table.

“What’s settled?”

“You and Vic will work together to find the talent for the festival.” Byron swallowed the last of his rum and tossed some money on the bar. “And while you’re with her, you can make her see she and Sean aren’t a good fit.”

“It’s not my place to interfere in Vic’s love life.” Love life. The earlier discomfort reared up along with an image of her in his arms. The words snapped like angry lobsters, rubbing him the wrong way. He shook his head. He’d never—okay, rarely—thought of her as more than a friend, so what was his problem all of a sudden?

“It’s always a friend’s place to warn another when they’re getting into a bad situation. Just think how different your life would be if someone had warned you.”

I was warned. I have thought about it. “I wouldn’t change anything that gave me Sophie.”

“You can’t be okay knowing Vic will leave you and Sophie tonight and head to another man’s bed. To know the love your daughter is bathed in could drain as quickly as murky bathwater when Vic finds a man who can give her a child of her own.” Byron shook his head and snorted. “If you are, you’re not the man I thought you were.”

Without giving Hauk time to respond, Byron hustled out the door as fast as his spry old legs would carry him.

Something felt wrong about the codger’s take on Vic, though Hauk couldn’t have formulated the right questions to figure out what if he’d been given the chance. Byron had tossed a lot at him. Had prodded sore spots best left…unprodded.

Vic had tried to tell him Krista was changing, that she had a hatred growing inside. He’d been so blinded by desire he’d ignored the warning. He’d ignored Vic until he’d been able to see the truth for himself. After he’d apologized for the unkindness he’d shown her back then, he and Vic had settled into a relationship where they had fun as friends. They talked about almost everything, but there were clear lines they never crossed. The most clear one being the line into the intricacies of the other’s personal life.

Yet somehow, Byron’s mention of Vic going to Sean’s bed had Hauk wanting to cross that line. Trouble was, he had no real reason she shouldn’t be with Sean, other than to say she deserved a man who would have an easier time dealing with her independence.

Sean wanted his women on the more subservient side. He’d said before that whoever he married could work outside the home, but in a predictable, nine-to-five, low-stress job, because he wanted her attention when work hours were over. Vic worked hard from early in the morning until late in the evening running her own business, and she had an active group of friends who kept her busy after hours. She wasn’t the woman Sean described.

Then there was the other side of trouble Hauk could get into if he crossed the line with Vic. Maybe she would take his advice and stop seeing Sean. It would open her up for the right man sooner, and Byron’s prediction of Sophie losing another woman in her life could come true faster, because when the time came that she did find her Mr. Right, she would dedicate herself to him. Sophie would likely get set aside more often. And Hauk could lose his best friend, as few men were okay with their women hanging out with other men.

“Damn it.” The discomfort in his throat shifted and sank until there was a mass of tension gripping his spine. He couldn’t deny his body’s message. Though he couldn’t act on them, he had underestimated his feelings for Vic.

“Something wrong, boss?” Aimee asked as she unloaded empty glasses from her tray.

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Still unsure of what he would say to Vic, if anything, Hauk scrubbed his face. “Listen, I’m heading upstairs. Will you close up?”

“Sure, but…” Aimee glanced around the bar and back to him with worry. “I don’t… I haven’t…”

“You’ll be fine. Trust me.” The benefit of the small town was that everyone who frequented his place knew Sophie had seen Dr. Dani earlier, just as they’d know the rest of his staff was in the middle of or coming down with the flu. “No one will give you any trouble if you tell them I’ve gone up to take care of Sophie.”

Aimee was new in town, and her bouncing ponytail and cute smile were quickly winning her friends. Eager to please everyone, and curiously averse to responsibility, she was easily reduced to a ball of nerves, so Hauk spent several minutes calming her before heading upstairs where his daughter lay sick, and the woman suddenly commanding his attention was likely thinking about her date with Sean.

On the way, Hauk tried to picture his world without Vic so involved. With her ever-changing hairstyle and color, and her intelligent brown eyes that saw too much, she was an integral part of his world. She wanted her own family one day, and she deserved one. But knowing he’d have less of her time when another man won her heart dimmed Hauk’s image of his life while deepening the discomfort of her love life beyond him.

No woman should have such power over a man, and Vic had never tried to exert any on him. Still, it seemed she had a hold over him, and it would only increase if he crossed the line into personal grounds.

He would not, could not, should not cross that line.

CHAPTER TWO

Vic moved Sophie’s lap desk to the foot of the bed, settled on the edge and began reading Sophie’s paper.

 

Whispering Cove.

From its rocky shores and up the cobbled streets, past the colorful buildings and vibrant people, it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s home.

I think it’s as impossible to come to Whispering Cove and not fall in love as it is not to take a piece of it with you when you leave. I guess that’s not right. You can resist falling in love with Whispering Cove, but you still take something with you when you go. At least that’s what I’ve heard Dad say. And that we’ll always have our family.

I’m lucky. My family is bigger than me, Dad and my grandparents.

My family is Mr. Mitchell who makes me laugh when I’m sad. My family is Dr. Dani who helps me feel better when I’m sick. My family is Mrs. Wilson who bakes my birthday cakes when Dad burns them. My family is Vic who cuts my hair and tells me I’m pretty and helps me with my homework when Dad works late, and says she loves me.

My family is everyone who works together every year to breathe life into the Fall Festival, and my family is even the tourists who visit and stay to play games during the festival.

The Fall Festival.

It’s important to the town, I know, but it’s always fun. And it always has me making the same wish. A wish for a bigger family.

In a way I think the Fall Festival is a member of the family. It brings us together for fun, games, dancing and food. We stay out late and eat too many sweets and our parents let us ignore our chores. I think my favorite part of the Fall Festival though is the dancing. When the music is playing, we get to forget for a little while about what we wish we had. We get to live in the joy of the moment. We kids get to watch the parents take their turn on the dance floor.

Of course, most kids tell their parents they think they’re gross and embarrassing. Personally, I would like to see my dad dance. I think if he did it would mean he heard my wishes, but more, it would mean his heart has healed.

The festival is coming soon, and I am already wishing the same wish. I wish Dad would grow our family. I wish Dad would find a mom to dance with.

 

“Sophie.” Vic read the last lines of Sophie’s school paper with welling tears burning her eyes. She’d expected something strong, given Sophie’s early-for-her-age maturity and meticulous approach to homework, but the emotion she’d tapped into for this… It was more than Vic had expected. “This is… It’s lovely.”

“So you really like it?” Anxiety shook the sweetness in Sophie’s ten-year-old voice as she lay in her bed, nearly comatose from the cold medication Dr. Dani had prescribed that afternoon.

“I do.” Vic tried to quell the tears, to assure Sophie, to ease the doubt she was feeling. Suddenly, though she always knew how to relate to Sophie, she found herself unsure of the right approach. That she meant enough to be included as one of Sophie’s family members, with the reasons she’d listed, confirmed all that Vic had suspected about the little girl she’d loved forever.

The need for a mom didn’t vanish just because she’d never known hers, and it wouldn’t go away with age. Hauk’s strength and commitment to always being there wasn’t a cure either. A girl needed to know she was loved unconditionally. Hauk gave her that, but she needed to know she was loved enough to make a woman want to stay. She needed the guidance and assurances that could only come from a mother.

“Do you think it will win the contest?”

Distraction drove back the tears lingering in the wings and fortunately allowed Vic to think more clearly.

She considered the question and her answer for a moment. In her heart she wanted to offer the instant assurance, but Sophie wouldn’t believe her if she did. Instead, she took just enough time for Sophie to think she had thought about all the other kids and the stories they would tell. None would matter though. Everyone in town knew Hauk’s story and they all felt a little sorry for the daughter who looked just like him. It was impossible that her emotional take on the festival and family wouldn’t win her the grand prize.

“I do.” Vic leaned forward and kissed Sophie’s forehead, checking to see if her fever had reduced any. It hadn’t. “And I think your dad is going to be just as proud as I already am when it does.”

“You don’t think it’s going to upset him, do you?”

The worry was a tricky one. Most people thought Hauk was invincible, cut off from the past so much that it had no power over him. He was Vic’s best friend, and because she knew him so well, she knew everyone who thought that was wrong. He put on a brave front that had to weary him. His past held plenty of power over him. Enough that he never dated or looked at a woman more than once.

He wasn’t invincible. Especially not when it came to the things Sophie said. His little girl had grown up too fast, facing harsh realities no child ever should. When he got the chance to read her paper, it would shred his heart into thinly frayed hairs. It would rip him up again if she won the school contest and got to read it at the festival’s opening. But the one thing everyone did know about Hauk was that he adored his daughter and would endure anything for her.

“I think he will love it as much as he loves you.” Vic smoothed Sophie’s Wizards of Waverly Place sheet and comforter around her legs. “And I will make sure to deliver this to Ms. Taylor in the morning.”

“I wish Dad would let me take it in.” Sophie sighed with a maturity a ten-year-old shouldn’t have. “But I understand the potential ramifications since I’m contagious.”

Vic smiled as she always did at Sophie’s vocabulary. A life spent primarily around adults had matured her quickly. “We can’t be making everyone else at school sick, right?”

“Right.” Sophie yawned with the effort to sit up and wrap her arms around Vic’s waist. Squeezing, tight and serious, she cuddled close for several silent minutes. When she spoke it was quietly. “I’m glad I have you.”

“Me too.” The tears that had subsided welled back up, prodding like pinpricks against her eyes. Maybe it was the fever pulling the sentimental side of Sophie out. Vic wasn’t sure what was doing it to her. Her lack of sentimentality, or what people saw as a lack of sentimentality, was something that had ended more than one relationship. She was plenty sentimental about the things and people she loved.

“I love you, Vic.”

“Ah, Sophie—” she squeezed the young girl back, “—I love you.” With a last hug, she eased Sophie back to the bed. “Now go to sleep so you can feel better quickly.”

“Okay.” The agreement slurred as Sophie gave in to the exhaustion she’d fought for the sake of finishing her paper. In two blinks she was asleep.

Vic picked up the lap desk and notepad Sophie had used and set them on the desk on her way to the door. Before turning the light off, she studied the girl for a last moment. The pale coloring she’d gotten from her Norwegian heritage stood in stark contrast to the inky shadows beneath her eyes and the rosy cheeks the fever caused. So like her father, regardless of how bad she felt, her academic drive and generous heart propelled her on.

Rubbing her chest, wondering at the odd feeling, as if she’d been somehow bruised, Vic turned off the light and headed down the small hall to the living room. Hauk entered as she turned the corner. Tiredness tinted his gaze, but there was a power radiating from him she hadn’t noticed before. A sense of determination.

They both froze. Vic trembled from the nape of her neck to the tips of her fingers. Sophie’s paper drifted to the floor.

His piercing blue eyes snapped to hers. Held.

It was a moment they’d had a few times over the years. The kind of moment that made her wonder if they could be more than friends. The kind that tempted her to step forward and see what it would be like to kiss him. To taste him. It was the kind of moment that haunted her dreams and kept her distancing herself from other men.

Despite the scattered moments, she’d never acted on one. At first because he’d been with Krista. Then he’d been with Jean Marie. He’d needed to heal from the first and deal with the second. By the time he’d gotten past those hurts, he’d just given up on possibilities of more.

He started to speak. Stopped. When he finally did speak, he settled on, “How’s Sophie?”

“Asleep.”

“Is she feeling any better?” Like so many men, he only said what he needed and in few words. Tiredness slowed his tone from its normal steadiness until he sounded brusque.

“Not yet, but with any luck she’ll sleep all night.”

“Unfortunately she’s never been good at staying asleep when she’s sick.”

On top of single-dad duties, he’d been splitting his time between running the bar with a skeleton crew and designing and building a new stage for the festival. She had no doubt he’d pull it all off, but knowing he was in for a long night bugged Vic.

“Would you like me to stay?” Even as she asked, she knew he wouldn’t accept. She stepped forward, feeling suddenly awkward and not liking it. “You don’t have time to join the ranks of the flu-fallen.”

He smiled as she’d hoped, but in spite of his Norwegian ancestry that gifted him with godlike looks, it didn’t brighten his wiped-out gaze. The man was exhausted.

“You should go.” He moved forward but his feet didn’t get a clear signal. He stumbled, whether on the carpet or his own feet she wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. The momentum carried him toward her in three rushed shuffles.

Fearing he would keep going and knock himself out when he fell, Vic hustled to close the distance between them and stopped his plunge with her arms wrapped around his waist. His weight bearing down on her, his hands against her lower back, fully awakened the awareness she’d sensed when he stepped in moments ago.

Sparks ignited beneath her skin, snapping her body into an instant arousal that paled to that in her dreams. Swallowing, she backed a step away and struggled for something safe to say. Something that wouldn’t send Hauk running.

“I’m staying. You’re going to bed.” Shit. Nothing safe about that.

“Okay.” Hauk’s agreement was more an effect of their closeness than real agreement.

It had to be, because he never would have agreed to her staying overnight. He would worry too much that someone in town would catch on, or Sophie would get ideas, or worse, Vic would get ideas. Too late.

Her mind and body, especially her body, went into erotic overdrive when he didn’t back away either. Arousal filled her, lapping through her in curling waves that ebbed and flowed with warmth and wanting. “Hauk?”

“Hmm?” He set his hands on her hips, tugging her back to him.

He’d never touched her as anything other than a friend, and even those casual brushes of skin had been shielded behind propriety. Unsure if it was from a drop in his guard or hers, Vic was acutely aware of Hauk’s body.

Tall. Lean. Warm. Hard… Everywhere.

She was equally aware of her body’s response to him.

Trembly. Wet. Hot.

Oh sweet damn.

“Sean is waiting.”

“What?” she whispered as she raised her head to find Hauk staring down with…was that hunger? Sean was nice, but really not her type. Why bring him up? “Who cares?”

They stood at a boundary they’d never acknowledged, discussed or crossed. A boundary she wanted only to obliterate.

Rising up to her toes, with her body rubbing against his deliciously, she eased closer to his lips. Answering her desire, he held her closer, his head lowering slowly toward her lips.

The kiss was nothing more than a light caress.

They both pulled back. Vic traced a finger along the outline of her lips and hummed. “Do you think…? Would you…”

Hauk leaned in and kissed her. Again it was only a gentle touch. Tentative. Barely there. Lingering a moment longer.

They both pulled back. Again Vic touched her lips and hummed.

“Awful?” he asked.

She shook her head once with her eyes mostly closed. “A little weird.”

“Yeah.” Again he brushed his lips across hers. “But worth repeating.”

“Yeah.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to his.

The next brush was tentative, but long enough. A spark ignited a chain reaction that lit a fuse. With an almost unheard “hmm”, Hauk lifted Vic until she was flush against him and her feet dangled in the air. Lips level without the need to bend or stretch, they explored each other.

Slow sweeps of lips rapidly became rough rushes of tongues. The burning fuse fried Vic’s nerves, leaving only raw sensation and growing heat in its wake. Burying her hands in his blond hair, thrilling at the extra length since he’d missed his last two appointments, she wrapped her legs around his waist.

He was her best friend. She’d always loved him but had never imagined he would show any interest in her. Whatever had changed his mind, she wasn’t arguing.

The move settled her pussy directly against his dick. He was thick and hard. She was wet and swollen. Neither of them could hide their reaction to the other. She loved that he didn’t try. Yet.

“Damn, Vic.” He panted when he eased back.

“Ditto, Hauk.” She only gave him a moment to breathe before reclaiming his mouth.

She tensed the muscles in her thighs for concentrated control and slid her body against his. The line they’d never crossed blurred with each pounding pulse of their hearts, and she didn’t give a damn because nothing would make her regret Hauk’s touch.

Her belly jumped with nervous energy. It was a sensation she’d only felt once, the night she’d decided to give up her virginity—an experience she’d never regretted. Spurred by the memory, by the hope for another amazing memory, Vic tightened her hold on Hauk and kissed a little deeper.

Their tongues shifted from sliding caresses to tangling thrusts. Fluid relaxation whispered through Vic’s muscles, taking them from knots of tension to tendrils of flame. Her arousal was as tangible as Hauk’s lean body as she curled into him. Committed the feel of him against her to memory.

Encouraged by her responses and apparently eager to continue, Hauk carried her to the sofa. He sank. She straddled. He gripped her hips. She stripped off his shirt.

Vic took in Hauk’s work-toned torso and, like a clichéd teen with a crush, licked her lips. She’d seen him without shirts, and loved each treat, but somehow with her palms flattened on his pecs, he seemed bigger than she’d thought. Firmer.

“Vic, are we really going to do this?”

Please, yes. “I’m game if you are.”

She slid her hands down his body while her gaze traveled up. The aggressive arousal dominating his cerulean stare would’ve erased any doubts, if she had any.

His thumbs moved rhythmically over the hem of her shirt. He didn’t break their locked gazes, but neither did he make a move or say anything for long, quivering moments.

Vic rolled her hips again, rubbing against Hauk’s cock. A shaft of fire shot through her core. With a little growl rumbling from deep in his chest, he lifted her shirt. Subtle calluses on strong hands with lithe fingers awakened each patch of skin they stroked. He flicked her nipples. Every touch heightened her sensitivity to his caress. She arched her back, begging for more.

He bent and took a lace-covered nipple in his mouth and sucked. She bucked against him as desire sparked through her brain and gripped her spine. He shifted to her other nipple and her muscles went from lax to tight.

She had never reacted so quickly to a man’s touch. Even in dreams her blood warmed slowly. Hauk’s touch though, the sultry taunt in his touches, the unexpected joy of having him return her desire, burst through her with instant heat.

Trailing kisses down the center of her torso, he barely made it to the waist of her pants before an orgasm rippled through her. On a scale of one to ten it was only a four or five, but it made her wonder just how powerful his touches could be.

“Hauk.” The single syllable dragged out as she rode the crest of the orgasm. He caressed her stomach and neck with his hands while returning to lick, kiss and suck on her breasts.

“I didn’t know I could want you this way.”

“I did.” And it was damn delicious.

“Sophie’s down the hall.”

“It’s not like we’re strangers.” She could help him brighten the moral gray area if need be.

“Which makes it more…”

“Interesting?” A smile curled her lips with pure pleasure at the idea of him wanting more. Unfortunately, a conflicting seriousness gripped her. They weren’t strangers, and after reading Sophie’s paper, Vic had to be careful. One wrong step could mess everything up.

The new territory they’d crossed into had only blurred the lines of their relationship. If they went further, it could obliterate the lines, and by extension their friendship. If she and Hauk couldn’t be friends, she wouldn’t feel comfortable being around Sophie. God, Sophie would be heartbroken. More importantly, she couldn’t stand the idea of not being around Hauk.

Buzzing from his touches, his kisses, Vic eased off Hauk’s lap and grabbed her shirt. He didn’t need to say his concerns were the same, or that they had more power over him.

“Vic?”

“This is…” Too fast. “We can’t…”

She pointed down the hall toward Sophie’s room. His daughter wasn’t likely to wake up, and Vic knew she could explain things to Sophie if she found out they’d been together, but Vic couldn’t risk how Sophie catching them would bother Hauk. He had hang-ups about relationships that wouldn’t be resolved after one night, and his daughter had dreams of a mother that Vic couldn’t mess with because of an arousal-muddled state.

“Right.” Hauk’s tone bristled as he stood and grabbed his own shirt. He didn’t put it on though. “This was a mistake we won’t repeat.”

“That’s not—”

“You have someone waiting.” Moving stiffly, he picked up the paper she’d dropped and held it out to her.

Vic’s heart fractured a little as she took Sophie’s essay. That Hauk could believe, even for a moment, she would be able to leave him and go to another man… He should know better, but she was no more in the mood to set him straight than he was to listen. Instead, she grabbed her purse and walked out.

Her body burned.

Her heart bled.

CHAPTER THREE

Vic stopped in the bar downstairs from Hauk’s apartment for a drink. The liquor didn’t help any more than Aimee’s sweet concern. Even the sea-scented and chilled walk home through the early morning silence did nothing to ease the impact he’d had on her body.

Still stinging from Hauk’s words, and vibrating from the remembered imprint of his hands and the orgasm they’d carried her to, Vic let herself into her small apartment. She’d always loved the home she’d made with its bright colors and overstuffed chairs. Now…

It seemed too small and empty.

Confining.

Suffocating.

Like her skin.

One kiss and her dreams had shifted into a temporary reality. One kiss, one touch, and everything she’d known to be true about herself and about her and Hauk had been changed.

With each step, the strength in her knees chipped away until they shook like jellyfish. Vic collapsed into the closest chair.

Hauk had kissed her and touched her and taken her to orgasm.

That they’d stopped, worse that he’d declared it a mistake, didn’t matter. That he’d thought she would leave him and go to another man—wherever he’d gotten that idea—hurt. He hadn’t hurt her so badly since he’d dismissed her when she tried to warn him about Krista. Then and now the hurt shocked her. But when the edge of shock sloped down a less violent path, she realized it didn’t matter.

He’d seemed different from the moment he walked in the door. And he’d looked at her differently.

She didn’t care what had caused the change.

She didn’t care why he thought she’d had plans with Sean, though she could address that if necessary.

She didn’t care that he’d mistaken her words and said they’d made a mistake.

She only cared that Hauk had kissed her and how much she wanted to risk exploring what they’d begun. She cared deeply about knowing if the connection she’d glimpsed could last.

Just as soon as she crafted a reason to swing by when Sophie was gone, she would make sure he kissed her again. The trick would be having a cover story that didn’t include “How about we pick up where we left off?” Nope. That explanation would have Hauk locking her out of his life.

She wouldn’t risk that even if it meant she could never touch him again. Though she planned to somehow have it all.

Thinking and staring at the wall until it blurred into a smudge of sunny yellow, Vic drifted on the waves of possibilities.

She could check on Sophie, but he’d expect that in the form of a text while she headed to the salon in the morning. Besides, not only was it not sexy, she wouldn’t use Sophie to get to Hauk.

She could go to his bar for drinks, but she never drank alone, and gathering her girlfriends around her was again not sexy. Besides, three of her closest friends were on an alcohol hiatus thanks to the babies in their bellies. Her other friends… Well they would see too much and she’d prefer to explore Hauk and the possibilities therein privately.

She could…

The phone rang, interrupting her thoughts. It was later than she’d expect for a call, but when she dug the cell from her purse and saw the caller ID, she wasn’t really surprised. Smiling, she hit Talk.

“Hello, Byron.” The man made predicable unpredictability a lifestyle, which made him more endearing than his old-fashioned charm. She could never guess what he’d do, but neither was she surprised when he did it—like calling her at nearly one in the morning.

“It’s about time you answered, girl. I’ve been calling all night.”

Curiosity had her vowing to check her missed calls log when they hung up. “You have me now, though I’m not sure why this couldn’t wait until later. What’s up?”

“I have a favor to ask.”

He didn’t acknowledge her reference to the hour, and if she asked again, he’d give her a passive response that was more evasion than answer.

“No, I will not date or marry any of the men you may have chosen for me.” None would be good enough. None would kiss the way Hauk kissed.

He gasped, as if she’d believe for a blink that she’d offended him. The man was a matchmaking schemer with grand plans for the town’s young’ns, as he called them. “If you insist on your lonely life with no one to laugh and dance and make love with, that is your sad business.”

She ignored the disgusted tone Byron adopted when he found himself facing a single person of marriageable age. She wanted everything he mentioned, but agreeing too readily would encourage the man’s meddling. “And with that comes a loss of privacy, the constant concern for someone else and uncapped toothpaste tubes.”

“That you believe that is all there is to marriage saddens me.”

“Marriage.” Vic grinned until it stretched her cheeks almost painfully. How she suppressed the bubbling urge to giggle escaped her, but she managed. “Damn, I was talking about dating.”

Silence rang as clearly as an image of Byron sitting on his deck with a blanket knitted by Ruth snapped into Vic’s mind. He wouldn’t just be sitting there though. After that comment, he’d have dropped his shaking head to his chest. The funny thing with Byron was that he saw through everyone else and ignored their protests to be set up. He seemed to actually believe her claims though.

“The day will come, Victoria Hayes, when you see the importance of a lastin’ love.”

“Well, since today doesn’t seem to be that day, why don’t you tell me why you’ve really called?”

“You’re a stubborn young woman, but fine. I’m helpin’ Harold with the upcomin’ festival.”

“Yes.” Everyone in town seemed to help in some manner or another. Even some of the tourists got in on the fun at times.

“You may have heard the headline singer cancelled on us.”

“Not a big loss from what I hear.” The member of a once hugely popular band hadn’t lasted long as their lead singer or on his own. If the games he’d played with the planning committee were any indication, his lack of success made sense.

“We still need to replace him and find some other acts. I was hoping—”

“That I would find said replacement.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” It was a harmless enough request and something she had plenty of thoughts on. “What else do you have planned for the stage?”

“Hauk is building it.”

“I meant acts.” Though depending on the acts she lined up, she could have an excuse to see Hauk. They would need to make sure the stage worked for everyone.

“Oh. We were hoping to showcase some local talent. I know Hauk has some ideas. Maybe you could work with him on that?”

There was a little too much delight dancing beneath Byron’s request. Vic narrowed her eyes, fully suspecting she’d just been played. If she had, she wouldn’t reject the chance to explore Hauk…and a relationship with him. Neither would she let Byron Mitchell think for an instant that he’d won. “I’ll work with Hauk, but I’ve gotta tell you something.”

“What’s that, lassie?”

“If you’re thinking he and I would be a good pairing, that he will somehow change my views—”

“I would be wrong.”

“You’re a smart man.”

And he’d be right that Hauk could change her views, but she wouldn’t tell him that. With her grin spreading again, Vic went on. “Kissing Hauk is… Well, it’s not as nice as I’d have thought.” It’s so much better.

“Hmmph. Huh? You been kissin’ Hauk?”

“It’s been awhile.” If you count awhile by minutes. “I’ll get with him though.” She paused for a long moment before finishing with “…on the music.”

“First thing. Time’s awastin’.”

“Of course.” Vic disconnected the call, already anticipating the coming days. Grinning, she accepted the gauntlet of the schemer who would likely drive himself batty trying to figure out if he’d missed a match.

If Byron was playing her, she would play him right back. And if Hauk thought he regretted a kiss, she would show him how much she had to offer. How much he stood to regret if he didn’t give them a chance. Because the fact of the matter was, she knew as certainly as Byron that she and Hauk would be a great team.

 

 

Fifty-three hours after he’d kissed Vic, fifty-three hours of mental torments circling around and back to that kiss, the cheery announcement, “It’s all about me,” ousted Hauk from sleep. The greeting was followed by a sharp whistle he’d programmed for Vic into his phone as a joke. The clock read six forty, which earned a scowl. There should be no jokes at six forty in the morning.

No one texted him before nine a.m. because everyone knew he barely managed to get up by eight and get Sophie to school. Vic, who was the least high-maintenance person he knew, never texted him before noon because she had learned he detested all things morning when they’d carpooled during school.

This had to be important.

The reach for his phone—still whistling from the pocket of his jeans he’d walked out of at five a.m.—turned into a scrambling belly crawl from the bed to the floor. Sophie had finally gotten well enough to return to school, but then he’d ended up running the bar and handling closing alone when all his staff called in with the flu, which meant he’d had maybe eight hours sleep in the last three days.

This better be really important.

With the morning chill of fall quickly creeping through the wooden floor, he grabbed the phone and crawled back beneath the heavy covers. Feeling as with it as he could so early, Hauk read the text message.

Dani is coming to watch Sophie. Be at my place by 7. Yes a.m.

He rubbed the heel of his palm over his eyes and yawned. Was she crazy? She expected him in twenty minutes? No way.

He texted back. Rough night. Why?

When five minutes passed without a response, he began to worry. It wasn’t so much a concern over her safety. More about what she was planning, and his curiosity wouldn’t allow him not to find out. He dragged himself out of bed and pulled his jeans on. First he’d kissed his best friend. Then he had spent a couple of days thinking about the feel of her body. Now she had him out of bed more than an hour before normal and sex wasn’t even on the table. Vic was having him break all sorts of personal rules.

He’d no sooner dug a shirt out when a heavy knock landed on his main front door. Grabbing his socks and shoes, and with concern for Vic propelling him past frustration and tiredness, he headed to the living room.

Instead of Dani, the town doc, Hauk found her new husband and one of his closest friends on his doorstep. “Braydon.”

“This is awful early for you, isn’t it?” Braydon closed the door behind him and settled comfortably on the couch.

Hauk nodded and went about putting on his shoes. “I thought Dani was coming.”

“The baby felt it was more fun to keep her hugging the toilet.” He said it with a grin that clearly announced how tightly wrapped he was around the baby’s finger, and they were barely out of the first trimester.

“So, why am I taking Sophie to school this morning? What in Whispering Cove has you up with the fishermen?”

“Vic.”

“She okay? Dani only said I needed to get over here.”

“I think so.” She better be. He hadn’t seen her for a few days, not since she’d walked out after… Shaking off the thought of what they’d almost done, or jarring it back a few paces, he struggled to wake up. She would pay for getting him up so damn early.

Braydon laughed as Hauk pulled on his jacket. “Well, take your time. I’ve got your girl.”

Hauk hesitated at the door. He’d never left Sophie before she woke, and even knowing she was perfectly safe didn’t ease his anxiety.

“It’s been awhile since I did a morning school routine, but I can handle it.” Braydon waved off his unspoken concerns. “Go see Vic.”

Five minutes later, with his ears painfully cold, Hauk knocked on Vic’s door. He trusted Braydon to keep his mouth shut if he suspected anything, but the courtesy would only extend so far. Dani would know, and she wouldn’t waste any time giving Hauk shit about hooking up with Vic. She too, though, would save the harassment for more private times. Glancing around as the neighborhood began stirring, Hauk winced. Vic’s neighbors, many of whom were elderly women who frequented her salon, thrived on gossip. If any of them saw him at her door so early without Sophie, they would talk.

He had spent enough time as the subject of town discussion. He didn’t want to return to the eye. Vic needed to answer the door, or he was going home.

He knocked again. Harder.

She still didn’t answer after another minute. He heard the lock next door turn and knew Mrs. Paulette would appear shortly. The ringleader of the town gossips was the last person he wanted to see him.

Hauk reached for the knob and relief flooded through him when it twisted. He rushed in. Closing it behind him, he breathed a long sigh.

Maybe this early morning call was Vic’s plan to drive him out of his mind.

“Vic.”

She didn’t answer his call. His worry that she was plotting something shifted into real concern. She had a wicked mind when she decided to use it, and he wasn’t thinking this morning’s summons was emergency related.

Feeling a little strange since he’d never been in her home without her and Sophie, Hauk headed toward the kitchen. He swallowed a lump of discomfort that was forming in his throat. Even the past visits with Sophie had been light and fun. Something about this didn’t feel that way. It felt…monumental.

“Vic. Where are you?” He wanted to find her but wasn’t sure he wanted to find her in one of the bedrooms, unless maybe it was the one she used for an office. That one would be okay, but her room, after the other night…

His body tingled with the memory of their kisses. With the desire to taste her again riding him, her bedroom was definitely not safe.

“Why did you need me…” He stepped into the kitchen and his question trailed off.

Clad in a skimpy camisole and matching panties that hugged her petite curves, Vic turned from the coffeepot with a huge mug in her hands.

Oh shit. This wasn’t right at all.

She sauntered to him and offered the coffee. “Morning, Hauk.”

Unable to form words, or many thoughts for that matter, he cautiously took the mug and swallowed a long pull of the strong brew. He couldn’t remember having coffee with her, ever, but she knew how he liked it and she’d been kind enough to greet him with his addiction. Whatever she was up to, she didn’t want to torment him too badly.

“Vic, why am I here?”

“A couple reasons.” She circled him, trailing a nail over his shoulders.

Through the layers of his jacket and shirt, his back rippled beneath her touch. His cock twitched. “Why am I here this early?”

He’d been accused of not being the most polite person in the morning. Even he heard the edge of mean exhaustion in his tone.

“I received a call when I got home the other night.” She paused in front of him with a smile. Her nail found a path down his chest, tweaking a nipple. “Morning, actually. Byron wants us to work together on the music for the festival.”

“Why?” Even as he asked the question, his memory of talking with Byron about the same thing returned.

“The headliner backed out. I guess he feels that between you and me…” She trailed off and watched her finger move down his stomach.

He found himself watching too. “Between you and me, what?”

“We know everyone in town well enough to know what they would like.”

“Hmmph.” He blinked free of his daze and downed another long swallow of coffee. The caffeine rush wasn’t clearing his mind quickly enough.

“I don’t know. I told him we’d…” Not meeting his gaze, she rolled a pinch of his shirt between her fingers. “…get to work.”

A breaker in his brain blew. He had no idea what she was talking about. Nothing registered beyond her barely covered body before him. Her perky nipples begging for his mouth. Her fingers slowly edging his shirt from his pants.

“Couldn’t the festival stuff have waited until after the ass crack of predawn?”

“Yes.” She did a sort of shrug with her eyebrows and flattened her hand on his lower abdomen. With the soft scent of lavender and powder drifting around her, she took his mug and set it on the counter. “But I wanted to catch you before the demands of your day-to-day commitments took you over.”

“Vic?”

“See, I’ve noticed how you are on the go and surrounded by people from the moment you get up to the moment you go to your apartment, ready to collapse.”

“Vic?”

“Getting you alone isn’t easy, but we started something the other night.”

His cock saluted the suggestion of her words as much as the outfit she’d chosen to greet him in. He retreated a step. “Something we shouldn’t finish.”

“Because you didn’t enjoy it? Because you don’t want me? Or because you think I have been with another man?”

“Pick one.” He’d make any of them true if it meant he wouldn’t risk losing her as a friend.

Vic wasn’t going to be persuaded. She closed the distance he put between them. With her gaze locked on his and her bottom lip tucked between her teeth, she shoved his jacket off his shoulders.

“Vic, please.”

“Please what, Hauk?” She didn’t stop staring as she grabbed the hem of his shirt and tugged it over his head.

He fisted his hands at his sides, trying to restrain himself from touching her. “This is…”

“Dangerous?” She unbuttoned his jeans.

Unable to win the battle, eager to watch her eyes widen and her nostrils flare with another orgasm, he set his palms on her hips. “Yeah.”

“Tempting?” The zipper lowered.

“That too.”

“More exciting than you thought possible?” Her fingers slid beneath the loose waist of his pants and pushed them down.

“Definitely.”

“Then get your shoes and jeans off.”

Throwing caution and concerns aside, Hauk dove at the offer he was given and toed off his boots. Grinning a seductive grin he’d never thought of as sexy before, Vic bent at the knees and lowered his jeans. Then she knelt before him.

She said nothing about his lack of underwear. She flattened her hands on his pelvis and kissed his stomach just below his belly button. When he thought she might travel south, she instead moved to her left, kissing a trail along his hip bone, teasing him with her lips and tongue and warm breaths.

Stepping free of his jeans, he swept her bangs from her forehead, enjoying the sensation of silken strands slipping through his fingers. She angled her head enough to look up at him as she began her journey to the right. Every teasing kiss and warm breath ramped his desire higher and higher. His muscles and skin danced beneath her touch. His knees weakened so much he was surprised he stayed standing.

The sun shone through her windows and created a halo of her hair. Its sister light glinted in her eyes when she glanced at him.

The sun wasn’t what made her seem different.

All the years of being friends with Vic, of sharing secrets with her, of laughing with her, of cheering each other up when they were down, he’d never seen her in the light she was bathed in. It was a light that had nothing to do with the morning sun. There was a freedom as she urged him to forget about the world around them.

Her nails dug gently into his hips, a bite of pain mixed with the pleasure of her mouth, as she caressed her way from his hips to his cock. His balls tightened. The tension spread through him, wrapped around his lower spine.

Feeling animalistic, instinct drove him to drop his head back and howl, yet the sight of her before him, exploring her power over his body, was so damn sexy he couldn’t rip his gaze away from her if he tried.

On her knees, with her hips moving in slow circles he barely noticed, she licked his tip. A hum vibrated from her throat as a groan rumbled from his. Rather than take him into her mouth, which he was sure would bring an end to things rapidly, Vic trailed tentative kisses along the length of him.

Her fingers brushed his skin as they slid toward his erection. The tingling in his spine intensified. Spread higher. He could count the number of his lovers on one hand and have fingers left over. It had been a long time since he’d felt a woman’s touch, longer since one had snared him so tightly into her web.

He opened his legs wider, lowering himself an inch or two. Her eyes pinched at the outer edges as she smiled. The next instant she’d cupped his balls in one hand and held his cock in the other.

With her fist wrapped lightly around him, squeezing in gentle pulses, she sucked the tip of him.

Tingles turned to jolts of electricity. Each suck sent another jolt along his spine.

She stroked down, following her hand with her mouth, taking him deeper. Up and down, in and out, over and over, her velvet tongue glided, edging him closer to release.

He gritted his teeth against the urge to thrust, to take the control from her.

She never stopped sucking him, bit by bit taking him deeper until her hand dropped away and only her mouth was on him.

His muscles gripped his spine. His balls tightened. His cock twitched.

She opened wider and took him as far as he could fit. His orgasm was coming faster than he wanted. Needing to stop her, to make this last longer, he tried to pull her head back. She only shook her head and kept sucking.

His tip bumped her throat and pushed past her tonsils. She never hesitated or gagged. Her tongue and mouth massaged him, encouraged him to let go. He lost the battle for control. His orgasm shot through him. Flames flickered in his brain. His head dropped back as he groaned, and his knees buckled. She braced him with her body, holding him up as she drank him in.

Dear God, what was she doing to him? One minute they were friends and the next they were lovers. And it was good. So fucking good he wanted to do it again and again. But that had him thinking long-term, and a girl like her deserved so much more than he could ever give her.

He was well past the point of denying he cared for her as more than a friend, but he had a shitty history with women hanging over his head. It was a deadly one that prevented him from getting involved enough to give Vic the family she dreamed of. And he wasn’t sure they would be able to back off from what they’d started.

So what the fuck was he going to do now?

Sex with Vic was a mistake. One he couldn’t undo. One he shouldn’t repeat. One he hoped wouldn’t destroy their friendship.

CHAPTER FOUR

With her panties soaked from the excitement of taking Hauk to orgasm, Vic stood. If she expected him to say something or behave a certain way, she wasn’t sure what or how it should be. Whatever it was, it wasn’t what she got.

As she raised her head and met his gaze, she found herself facing a wide grin that erased all the shadows and stresses of his life. It wasn’t a smile he smiled often. It was a smile—given the circumstances of the moment—that reached through her chest and wrapped itself around her heart.

Whatever arguments she made to Byron about her and Hauk being a poor fit were only token ones. She wouldn’t go so far as to believe she would win the heart of the man standing proudly naked before her, but she was smart enough to recognize the danger she was in. He was about to own her heart, even though he didn’t quite know what to do with it.

He stared, sort of mesmerized, and traced the outline of her mouth. “You arranged for someone to get Sophie to school this morning for this?”

“A little selfish, I know.” Falling under his spell, she flattened her palms on his shoulders. “Are you sorry?”

“A little worried.” Smiling just enough for the chipped corner of his front tooth to show, he bent over and kissed her. Lingered. “Not sorry for a second.”

A wash of relief flooded her, making her realize she’d needed the most basic reassurance. Taking his hand, determined to enjoy as much time as he would give, she led him down the hall to her room.

“Tell me, Vic. What was your main reason for sending me a babysitter and calling me here? Byron’s request, or sex?”

“Sex, but Byron’s request makes a great cover in case anyone sees you.”

“Vic,” he warned. “I can’t play this game and have Sophie caught in the middle.”

“I know, and I have done nothing to risk her. Tell me something, Hauk.” She glanced over her shoulder, curious to see if his face would tell a different story than his words. “Would you have come over if I’d told you why?”

They stepped into her room and he half laughed. Once. “Hell no.”

“Because you think this is going to destroy our friendship.”

“Don’t you?”

“A little.” She relied on the strength of their friendship, hoping it would make honesty easier. “I’m more concerned about Sophie getting hurt by this. And by your views on relationships.”

“I can’t have a successful, committed relationship, Vic.” He cupped her neck. His thumb brushed her pulse. “You deserve a man who can grant the dreams you have.”

“You can grant my current dreams.” She pushed him to the bed, stripped off her panties and climbed on top of him. She’d get him to accept love eventually. “No reason we can’t go with that for a while.”

His hands moved to rest on her hips as she straddled him. “What if we can’t go back?”

“I’m not going to lose you as a friend, Hauk.” She tugged her cami over her head and braced herself on his chest. Her pussy rubbed his cock. She lowered her face to his and whispered, “I love you too much to let sex screw up what we have.”

“I love you too, Vic.” His eyes pinched at the corners, the way they did when he was seriously concerned. “And I hope you’re right.”

They’d never said they loved each other, and she knew he only meant it in the way of friendship. And though it felt amazing to make the declaration, the part of her that wanted a family couldn’t help but want him to mean it on a more intimate level someday. “I’m right.”

To prove it as much to herself as to him she kissed him. It wasn’t tentative or aggressive like their earlier kisses had been. It was slow and deep. Soulful and emotional. She used the kiss to tell him how much she cared. To show that she didn’t want to lose what they were beginning to explore.

He wouldn’t miss the message, but neither would he acknowledge it or talk about how it made him feel. She’d likely never know if his heart trembled like hers or if his skin shrank as if he’d been exposed to too much heat or if his muscles quaked as if they’d been overworked.

Whatever happened between them, she had wanted a memory special enough to compare with her first time. She was getting more than one memory, and that treasured memory of her first time was quickly being outshined.

“I didn’t bring protection, Vic.”

“I get a shot. We’re safe.”

“You make it hard to argue.” Hauk ran his hands over her, going from her hips to her lower back to the base of her neck and down again to pin her closer. His mouth explored hers. His dusting of chest hair tickled her breasts and teased her nipples. The tickle traipsed along her nerves until her body trembled to the core.

Captivated by the moment she’d managed to steal, Vic repositioned herself lightly until his cock nudged her. Hauk needed no encouragement. His hands dropped back to her waist and he held her still while he thrust deep.

Vic arched her back on one breath. On the next she pushed up, and with her head dropped back and her hair sweeping her shoulders, she rode the man who knew her better than any other.

As she began to melt with the pull of passion, she canted forward with her head cocked slightly to the left. Her core tightened. Her muscles spasmed into tiny knots of tension. Hauk’s legs and stomach shook beneath her. He reared up and claimed her mouth with a gruff moan.

When she wrapped her legs around his waist, she was certain he would grab her and rush them toward an orgasm. He moved his hands to her ass but didn’t hurry. Instead, he edged them to the side of the bed and stood.

“What are you doing?”

“Enjoying the break you tricked me into.” He smiled his smile that was completely free again.

She didn’t care what he had planned, because whatever thoughts drifted in his mind had him having fun. If the tension leaving his shoulders was any indication, they had him allowing his stress to drop away. More importantly, whatever he was thinking seemed to have a sense of fun filling the part of himself where intense, duty-bound purpose typically lived. She would indulge his game, though.

“Should I be worried?” She leaned back, trusting him to support her. “You have a wicked glint in your eyes.”

“Maybe you should.” He kissed her left breast. “You never know what you’ll get—” and then her right, “—when you get me out of bed too early.”

She rolled her pelvis. “Sounds like a challenge.”

“Ah, but one you can’t issue too often or people will begin to talk.”

“What would happen to our town if rumors started spreading?” Flicking his nipples, Vic thrilled at the lighter tone peeking out from Hauk’s concern. His playful side was shining through and she loved it.

He kissed her breasts again. Lingered while his fingers massaged her ass. “A supernatural disaster of epic proportions, I’m sure.”

She laughed at the ridiculous idea of their town without rumors. Then he started laughing and it occurred to her she was laughing with Hauk buried deep inside. “I never imagined this could happen.”

“What?”

“That I could find something funny with a man buried inside me.”

He waggled with his eyebrows. “Guess I never gave it much thought.”

She didn’t have anything pithy to say because his past relationships hadn’t been laughable. Instead, she again rolled her pelvis, loving the feel of him inside her and the slick glide of his body against hers.

“I think we should both stop thinking for a while.” To prove her point, she locked her hands behind his neck. Hauk seemed perfectly content to indulge her, but again he surprised her.

Instead of lowering her to the bed, he lowered her to the floor and withdrew from her body. Secrets darkened his eyes an instant before he turned her to face the bed.

“Hauk?”

“Bend over.”

“What?”

“Brace your hands on the mattress.”

Shivers snapped along her spine as she obeyed. The kind, gentle and accommodating man she’d known her whole life was slipping away beneath the power of a dominant lover.

He stepped behind her, nestled his cock in the vee of her legs. “I can feel you better this way.”

“Mmm.”

“And you can feel me better.”

Proving his claim, he held her hips still while he entered her from behind. Thick and long, she’d felt all of him before. Now he filled her more completely. Slow thrusts picked up speed as he slipped his hands up her rib cage and to her breasts. Massaging her, rolling her nipples beneath his fingers, thrusting deep and sure, he drove her to the shaky edge.

Pressure built in her head. Hauk bent closer and kissed her spine just at the base of her neck. Something inside her cracked. Maybe it was a part of her heart since she knew he didn’t want as much from this as she did. Vic cried out as the tension mounting within ratcheted higher.

His nibbled his way down her back, never breaking the rhythm of his thrusts or the attention he gave to her breasts. His assault came from more angles at once than she’d ever known. The pleasure had her soul dancing and singing.

“Hauk.” His name was nothing more than a mangled moan. Her legs and knees trembled. Her arms shook from the weight of her body and his.

He drew a patch of her shoulder skin into his mouth and sucked so hard she knew he was going to leave a mark. His fingers pinched her nipples. He thrust harder and faster.

“Oh sweet hell.” Her vision blurred, temporarily blinding her. Tension and relief, coiled into tight bands of emotion and intense awareness, swept through her like a wave battering the shore.

Her inner muscles convulsed, gripping and milking Hauk. He followed her a second later with his own orgasm.

Unable to support them a moment longer, Vic allowed her arms to flop. She and Hauk crashed to the bed, laughing.

It was only a short matter of time before reality invaded.

Hauk would go home to Sophie. She would go to her salon. They wouldn’t speak of these moments outside the bedroom unless they could be entirely sure no one would hear. Hauk had spent too much time in the middle of Whispering Cove gossip to allow himself to end up there again.

 

With the salon empty for the first time since she’d opened that morning, Vic could hear the country tunes crooning through the speakers. She had an eclectic blend of music on her iPod that she docked in the back office, but the customers seemed to prefer country. Young or old, people enjoyed the blends of ballads and dance tunes the genre had to offer.

As a popular dance beat began, Vic made mental notes on possible singers for the festival and eased slowly into the chair at the makeup stand to study her face in the mirror. Smudges that were primarily an effect of running makeup darkened her eyes. She couldn’t blame makeup for her heavy lids, though. That was entirely an effect of another sleepless night.

Grabbing a tube of concealer, she worked on touching up her makeup before the next round of customers came in. It had been two days since she’d gotten Hauk to her apartment. Two days since she’d slept more than a few hours. Two days that had passed in an odd silence between them.

Sophie had come to see her when she was feeling better, but there’d been no contact from Hauk. No phone calls or texts or passing hellos on the street. Nothing.

She was beginning to get itchy, as much for her friend as for her newly discovered lover. The same feminine pride that had her wanting to look good kept her from being the one to make the next move. It was probably futile because Hauk wasn’t likely to make a move.

The man had developed a powerful determination in high school that drove him daily to be faithful to his decisions.

He had made some tough ones when he found out his girlfriend Krista, who at one time had been one of Vic’s close friends, was pregnant. They’d all been burned by her before the end, but no one had suffered as much as Hauk. He used to say he wanted to be an attorney specializing in family law, but he had put his dreams aside and married Krista, who later abandoned him and their daughter. She had been picking fights in town, spiraling deeper into the unfolding ugliness of her soul. When Vic had refused to believe a claim that Hauk was abusive, Krista had vowed everyone would see the truth soon. Three days later she’d been found dead with bruises on her face, an open wound across her forehead and a broken arm.

Because of the mysterious circumstances, and in the absence of a goodbye note of any kind, Hauk had been investigated as a suspect. The town had gathered behind him, though, and it hadn’t taken long to recover the boat she’d stolen. On it had been a taped sob story no one believed. When her blood had been found on the railing and no other DNA, her death had been ruled an unsolved death. The injuries alone made it too difficult to believe her death had been an accident or even a suicide.

After a grueling investigation that had verified Hauk’s alibi and failed to turn up another suspect, his name had been cleared by the law. His heart was a different story.

Eventually talk had died down, and though they’d never talked about it, Vic knew it was one more reason he’d rejected the full-ride scholarship he had won.

Instead he took over the running of the pub so his father could retire. Now as a single dad fully immersed in the life he built for himself and Sophie, there was no changing things as he saw it. Vic often wondered if he really would have done things differently. He loved his life, and suddenly she wanted to show him how loved he was. She wanted to see things get easier. To see him relax and enjoy himself more. To laugh like he did when they were alone and he stopped thinking about his to-do list and parenting responsibilities.

More than anything, she wanted to be the woman to help him find a new side to life. She wanted to be the one to give him all the things he wanted, instead of him always doing the giving.

“Salon secrets highlighted with fun are the best. Whisper your secrets to me.” Vic smiled at the latest greeting she’d programmed for her door and capped a tube of lip gloss. Carmen, her newest stylist-in-training, and her sister Aimee, Hauk’s waitress, strolled in. Laughter tinted their cheeks a rosy pink and lit their fiercely green eyes with fun.

“Ladies? Good lunch?”

“How could it not be in this town?” Carmen sent a mischievous smile to her sister.

Aimee closed her eyes and patted her heart in an exaggerated gesture. “I never dreamed our stop in Whispering Cove would turn into a new life surrounded by amazing men.”

They were as alike in their personalities as in their looks. Gorgeous. Vivacious. Fun-loving. Funny. Their differences seemed to lie in the slightly unseen.

With her always pristine appearance from her clothes to her perfectly styled hair, Carmen would appear to be the high-maintenance one, while Aimee, with her preference for jeans and T-shirts, struck people as the low-maintenance one. They made the perfect case for not judging books by the cover.

Carmen’s big dream was to find a funny man to settle down with. She wanted laughter in her life. Aimee worked hard, and Hauk had said more than once in the month she’d been at the pub, how good she was, but she preferred to find the neatly cobbled path to an easy life.

“How is it the single men in this town are, in fact, single?” Carmen asked.

“They’re resistant. Or maybe it’s that they only fall in love once.” She thought about her friends who’d recently gotten married and smiled.

Aimee dropped into the styling chair Carmen used. “You mean ever?”

“It seems so. Take Brody.”

“The sheriff?”

“Yeah. He fell in love with Andie when we were in school. Even when she left town, he never gave up on her.”

“Really?”

“It was quite romantic to watch.” Vic grinned, remembering the schemes the grandfathers had pulled to get their grandkids married off. It had been so easy for them. “Trent and Katie were the same way. Resistant to what they couldn’t avoid.”

“Are all the men like that?” Carmen’s voice sounded dreamy as she clearly imagined herself on the receiving end of such devotion.

“Eh. Sometimes it’s the woman who knows and refuses to back down.”

“Like Dr. Dani?” Carmen pulled Aimee’s hair from its ponytail and brushed it out. “I love her story.”

Aimee laughed. “I love her husband.”

“She was determined to catch his eye.” So much so she hadn’t allowed pride to hold her back. “They’re going to be fun to watch grow old together.”

“You think it will last that long?”

Vic walked to the window and looked out on Main Street. With its cobbled streets and the changing colors of fall, people bustling around to prepare for the coming festival, and tourists milling in and out of the shops and stuffing their faces with local foods, there was a mood about the place. “There is magic in this town. I absolutely believe they’ll last that long. We have our rough spots and dark times… There is always a bright side, though. And someone to support us.”

She and Hauk had both known the sadness of loss and they’d always supported each other as much as the town gathered behind them. They’d shared almost everything the successfully married couples had. The only thing missing was a deeper love and an open commitment. Hell, any commitment.

“Are we still talking about the same thing?” Carmen teased.

“Lasting love.” Vic turned away from the window and watched Carmen weave her sister’s hair into an intricate braid. “No matter who we are, there is love in this town and we’re never alone.”

Though she couldn’t help feeling lonely without seeing Hauk every day. It was something she was going to change. This evening. She’d promised to help plan the musical entertainment for the festival and she wasn’t going to let Byron down. Neither was she going to miss the lesson she’d learned from Dani.

Sometimes a woman had to take drastic measures to catch a man’s eye. She wasn’t going to miss the chance to spend more one-on-one time with Hauk.