Fiery

PAGE RATING: R

Whispering Cove, Book 11

Carmen Smith’s artist’s eye saw inspiration wherever she glanced as soon as she set foot on the cobbled streets of Whispering Cove, and among the inspiration she’s found the slower pace she always hoped for.

But as warm as her new life is, she harbors a secret dream to find a man who sees her as an equal and who loves her for who she is, rather than out of charity. The man she’s been partnered with to re-design the town square gets her fired up—but not in a way she expected.

Ryan Alden gave up his military career to help his father with the family business. He’s accepted his place in Whispering Cove, but still feels like an outsider at times. When he meets the bombshell babe with a vintage flare who challenges him like no other, he glimpses the life he has always longed for—but not in a way he anticipated.

From the get-go, they clash like oil and watercolor. And a relationship that looked good on paper might not be the right composition at all…

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 over the coming weeks.

CHAPTER ONE

The sand’s cool grains shifted between Ryan Alden’s toes as he ran recon from the crowd’s outskirts. Appearance-wise he matched most everyone else on the beach—bare feet and shorts, tank top and ball cap. Growing up in Whispering Cove, he’d had friends, many of whom still lived in town or had returned, but he’d never felt like he fully belonged.

On the surface he belonged, had always belonged. In his head and in his heart, he never had. To those who paid attention enough to notice—in spirit—he stood out as vividly as the woman walking slowly at the water’s edge. Her red hair and curves weren’t too unusual, though he’d never have guessed her legs were as long as they were. It could just be a trick of her vintage-looking polka-dot swimsuit that showed off more than the fifties-housewife-type dresses and skirt outfits he always saw her in.

He definitely preferred the swimsuit with its unique way of showcasing her skin. Her curves. Her. Topping out at little more than five feet, she was a stunner and his pulse jumped every time he allowed himself to look at her, but what really drew his eye wasn’t her appearance.

She smiled and waved and chatted with people, but the moment they were no longer looking her smile slipped away. Her lids dropped, shielding the eyes that made him curious and each step of loneliness took a fraction longer than when she was aware of people looking. When she wasn’t, her toes dug a fraction deeper into the sand and lingered barely a breath longer before she took the next step.

It was as if she relied on the earth to ground her. As if she wasn’t truly sure of her place in Whispering Cove. Or possibly the world. He understood the feeling well, though he hadn’t begun to understand why until his senior year of high school when he’d told his parents he was taking a year off before starting college.

His announcement had kicked off a cycle of family discussions and arguments that revealed the truth about his parentage. While that explained years of hearing how unlike the man he’d called Dad he was, it only raised more questions.

Who was he really? Who was his real father? Why hadn’t he wanted him?

Those unanswered questions had deepened the loneliness in his soul and led him to the Marine Corps.

He’d gained a few insights in the service and some specialized skills, but it had all stopped mattering when he received a call from home that his family needed him. He’d made the tour he was on his last and returned home to help with the family business.

Each day since had held good moments, but each had also been a struggle.

“What are you sulking for, Gunny?” Byron Mitchell moved more slowly through the thick sand than when he hustled down Main Street, but not by much.

“I don’t sulk,” Ryan said with a nod of greeting. Casually he rocked back on his heels, lifted his toes from the sand. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

“Needed to talk to you.”

“About?” He looked down at the older man. He’d looked down at most everyone since he topped out at six-seven. It had only really been an issue in tight places. Many of those tight places were more emotionally than physically constricting.

“Your bid on the new landscaping for the square.”

Ryan dreaded the question even before he asked it, because his gut told him which one the council would have chosen. Elderly men tended to favor tradition, which suggested they’d go for the most conservative, ordinary concept. Given the designs he’d looked at, that meant boring and inexpensive. “Which one?”

“The one with the gazebo.”

Three of the finalists had included the gazebo as their centerpiece. “That’s not much help.”

“Right.” Byron smiled. “Well, we liked the idea of marrying tradition and youth in multiple dimensions.”

Ryan was getting an idea of the one they’d chosen. He wondered if he wouldn’t have preferred a boring flag on the hill. “You chose the statue project?”

“As a matter of fact, we did.” Pride glinted in Byron’s eyes, almost as if the idea had been his own. Except that would have been against the rules and the council was all about rules when they had contests. “Did you like that one?”

“It had possibilities, but it’s going to take the most time.” The possibilities had excited Ryan, despite his concerns with the design. It was larger in scope than the others and would keep him busy for several weeks. It would also challenge his skills because it involved much more than plants and borders. A 3-D comic strip of sorts circling the gazebo with each square depicting a different scene, ranging from the fifties to present day.

“Excellent.” Byron slapped him on the shoulder and nodded happily. “You can announce the news to the winner.”

“What? Why me?”

“The formal announcement will be posted in tomorrow’s paper. You two have to get to work fast. It’s got to be done before the parade.”

The Corps had taught him how to perform the impossible while rolling with the punches. He’d hoped for a slower pace now that he was out, though. “Are you kidding? That’s only a month away.”

“No. But that’s why you’ll be working with the designer. She’ll know the project and be able to help the crew if you can’t be on site.”

“I’ll work with her, but she’s not managing my crew.” No way. No one oversaw his crew but him. Certainly not a woman who had no idea how the family had done business the last sixty-five years.

“You can work that out with the chickadee.”

God help him, he was going to be working with a juvenile. “Who is she?”

Byron turned and pointed with a mischievous grin. “That be the chickadee there.”

He was pointing to the lonely redhead.

Ryan’s heart thumped harder. His heart always quickened when he saw her. He’d never been closer than twenty feet, which was plenty close enough since he didn’t have time for the kind of distraction a woman like her would be. Or the chaos she would bring.

“Get to it, Gunny.”

“What’s her name?”

“Carmen Smith. Her sister Aimee worked for Hauk until marrying Josh Bryan.”

He’d heard about that wedding, and about the singer’s plans to move back when his tour wrapped up. Maybe Carmen seemed lonely because she was missing her family.

“Be nice to her, Gunny. I think she’s a little sad.”

“I’m always nice.”

“Hmmph.” Byron snorted, but he did it good-naturedly. “I’ll be by the site tomorrow to see how things are going,” he called as he headed away.

“Tomorrow’s a little quick for you to expect any real progress.”

“Tomorrow,” Byron demanded before heading back toward his cronies.

Tomorrow. Byron expected him to have a crew working as early as tomorrow? The old man was going senile, but rather than argue, Ryan walked toward the woman. Carmen. Even her name was sexy.

As he neared, the salty scent of the water heightened. Fifteen feet away he noticed her shoulders hunched forward the slightest bit. With ten feet between them he saw that her eyes were pinched at the corners. Five feet apart he swore he felt her sadness.

He opened his mouth to call her name. As if she felt him looking at her, she straightened her shoulders and smoothed whatever haunted her from her face. Her head lifted and she turned. Her skin was as composed as his dress blues were pressed and polished. If he hadn’t been watching her for two months he wouldn’t have recognized it as a mask.

“You… Hi.” Her greeting was cheerful, though maybe a little too much so.

“Carmen.” Ryan closed the remaining distance and offered his hand. “I’m Ryan Alden.”

“Nice to meet you.” She slipped her hand into his, shocking him and squeezing tighter than he’d have expected. “Alden, as in Alden Landscaping and Alden Galleries?”

He nodded. “You’ve heard of us?”

“Your company does the lawn work at my apartment complex and I’ve walked through the gallery a few times.”

He nodded again. He’d seen her at the complex, by the pool with her hair slicked back after coming out of the water. Droplets spotting her shoulders and arms, tempting him to find a towel and dry her off.

“Byron asked me to come talk to you.”

“Yeah?”

“Seems we’ll be working together on your gazebo design.”

“What?” Her lips parted. Her pale blue eyes popped wide and stared directly into his. “Does that mean I was the winner?”

Ryan nodded. He could look into her eyes for hours. And her lips, the curve of them, encouraged him to bend down and take a taste. He wondered if she would shock him again if he touched her.

He set curiosity aside and focused on the mission. “The official announcement will be in the morning’s paper, or so Byron says.”

She shook her head and chuckled. “The town grandfathers strike again.”

“Excuse me?”

She glanced up, craning her neck. Those eyes he wanted to swim in sparked with shrewdness. “You haven’t been in town long have you?”

“Two months.”

“You’re single?”

“Yes.”

“Marrying age?”

“Um, sure.” He was taken aback by her directness, but it was refreshing coming from her. She wasn’t his type. That didn’t mean the idea of her clearing a path turned him off. “Though I’m not interested in a relationship.”

“Doesn’t matter.” She turned and continued walking, moving farther away from the crowd. “It seems Byron has picked his next targets.”

Ryan fell into step beside her. He prided himself on being quick to connect dots, but she wasn’t making much sense. “Targets?”

“Do you also know Errol and Harold?”

“They were friends with my grandfather. Poker buddies.”

She nodded. “Yep.”

“What?”

“They’ve taken their bets beyond the poker table.”

“They’ve always done that. They’ve been known to bet on the weather.” Their poker games had been going on for as long as Ryan could remember. Hell, he’d learned to play at their elbows and thanks to their tips had won more pots than he’d lost in the Corps.

“These bets started with their grandkids. They got them home, matched them up and got them to the altar quick.”

“Matchmaking bets.” No way. Byron couldn’t possibly have picked Carmen for him. From everything he’d seen about her, she was soft and wounded and sweet. He was jaded and militant and screwed up.

“You’re home. You’re available.” She shrugged. “You’re fair game.”

“And you’re not?”

“Weren’t you in the military?”

“Marines.”

“Didn’t they teach you to read a situation?”

“Yes.” Though he was trying not to read the message she was spelling out.

“You don’t think it was a coincidence that you won the bid and I won the contest, do you?”

“I’d prefer it that way.”

She chuckled as she slipped her arm through his. “Then brace yourself for some disappointment.”

Her hand against his bicep, her arm brushing his as he lifted his hand to form a bend of support, blew through him like a grenade. In its wake was an arousal he’d long suppressed.

He’d matched his stride to hers, keeping a slower pace than he liked. It was a nicer alternative to dragging her vertically challenged self across the beach. “You say that as if they never fail.”

“They haven’t yet.”

“I’ll be their first.” No matter how sexy the woman at his side was, or how quickly something inside him rose up in a need to protect her, or how easily her touch awakened his desires, he was not going to be married off. If she was right and he was being matched off, Byron’s chance of success was slim. He’d just taken on a Marine and one thing all Marines excelled at was winning.

She looked up and squinted into the sun. “Am I so unappealing to you?”

“You, no. Everything you say they’re trying to do, yes.” He pulled his arm from hers and stepped back. “Meet me at 0600 at the gazebo. The council wants this finished in time for the parade.”

CHAPTER TWO

Carmen sat on her towel and watched Ryan serve the volleyball in the game he’d been called into. The man had not been like the gossipy women at the Whispering Salon had suggested.

He hadn’t been silent, but neither was he talkative. He hadn’t charmed her with a congratulations before ordering her to meet him at 0600. He certainly hadn’t seemed like a playboy who cared only about himself and his next orgasm.

The ball rushed toward Ryan. He charged ahead and spiked it over the net. It landed with a flurry of sand on the opposing side. Devon Taylor whooped with victory and jumped up, slamming his chest into Ryan’s. Then he laughed as he ran toward the water.

The women in the salon said Ryan had left a wake of broken hearts when he took off from Whispering Cove and that he should be avoided. A dangerous man wasn’t the kind of man Carmen wanted in her life, but Ryan intrigued her.

The moment she slipped her hand into his, sparks stunned her. Not sure if she was trying to trap the sensation or brace against it, she’d gripped his hand harder than normal. The sparks had only amplified until he’d released her.

They’d returned when she’d rested her hand on his arm. The flex of his muscles beneath her fingers as he’d raised his arm had moved through her, constricting low in her belly. When he’d pulled away, the sparks had again subsided and the tightness eased.

Watching him dominate the volleyball game, the attraction returned. The man aroused something she’d never felt before. She suspected it was the same something that had landed Aimee in Josh’s bed the first night she’d met him. Now her big sister was married, had a baby and was touring with her famous husband’s band.

“You should be playing and laughing today, Carmen.” Vic dropped down beside her and pulled her knees to her chest. She kept her gaze glued to her husband as he popped out of the water beside his daughter.

“This whole beach party is about having a good time.” Dani sat on Carmen’s other side and also watched the men in the water. Marriage had done nothing to ease the moon-eyed looks when their men were around. It was sweet, if sickening was an enjoyable taste. Carmen had mixed emotions about it.

“Are you kidding? I’m having a great time.” Carmen smiled for her friends.

“Tell that to your face,” Vic teased. “Or Dr. Dani may have to prescribe something like she did for Aimee at Christmas.”

Carmen widened her smile and knew it must look as false as it felt. “Guess I’m missing Aimee and Kendall.”

Dani wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. “They’re going to be home by the Fourth, right?”

“Yeah. Kendall’s going to be walking by the time they get back.” Carmen had done almost as much for her niece as Aimee had until Josh came back into the picture. Having them gone was like being ripped apart in foster care all over again.

“Babies sure grow up fast.” Dani’s voice drifted off as Braydon tossed their daughter into the air and caught her again just before she hit the water. Her giggle was pure and rich as it floated to them.

“It’s scary how fast.”

“Yeah.” Dani rested a hand on her stomach and sighed. “Even before they’re born.”

“Oh my God.” Carmen pulled Dani close and hugged her tight. “You’re pregnant.”

“Holy shit!” Vic jumped to her feet, grabbed Dani’s hands and pulled her up into a hug. “Who have you told? Tell me you told us before Braydon. Especially before you tell the grandpas.”

She looked around as soon as she mentioned the grandpas as if they’d automatically hear her mention a baby and come running.

“I told Braydon first. I’m surprised he’s not over here telling me it’s nap time.” Dani laughed and pulled free. “And no, we haven’t told anyone else yet.”

“Well, if we’re sharing secrets…” Vic cleared her throat. “Hauk and I have come to a decision.”

“Yeah?” Dani asked.

“Since I can’t have children, we’re going to adopt.”

“Seriously?” It didn’t surprise Carmen that Hauk and Vic would open their home to a child that wasn’t theirs. Vic and Sophia were closer than any true mother and daughter could be, probably because they were friends before they were family.

“We’ve been talking to a social worker in town. There’s a brother and sister who just lost their parents in a boating accident. We’re supposed to meet them tomorrow.”

“You’re taking in two?” That had always been the dream for Carmen and Aimee, that someone would have a big enough heart to take them both, but it had been one they’d never seen come true. Instead, they’d aged out of the system.

“Possibly.” Vic moved to stand between Dani and Carmen and slipped her arms around their waists. “Until we’re all ready to share our secrets, though, I say we join the party.”

She tried to resist when Vic pulled her toward the water. Toward the men swimming and playing there. “I’d really rather watch.”

“Yeah?” Vic asked. “You watching anyone in particular?”

The purple streak in her hair matched her shiny bikini and broadcasted the brightness of her spirit. A key to her spirit was that she took care of the people she loved, and she’d taken Carmen in as one of those people. It was a reality Carmen loved more often than not, but occasionally, it was a bit unsettling.

“No. Of course not.”

Vic’s smile turned smug. Dani simply projected sweetness as she quietly said, “I saw you walking with Ryan Alden earlier.”

“It was nothing. He was just telling me we’d be working together on the town square project.”

“You…” Vic gasped for a breath. “I didn’t even know you’d submitted a drawing.”

“Seems Carmen has more secrets than we thought.” Dani winked.

“It’s no big deal. I just outlined an idea for Byron.” Carmen shrugged. She’d wanted to lose, because then she could keep her secret to herself. God. She hoped they didn’t run her drawing in the paper, but every instinct told her they would. Byron would see no reason to keep the design a secret.

Unless… “Vic, would you excuse me? I need to talk to Byron.”

“Avoidance doesn’t suit you, Carmen.”

“I’ll be back when I’m finished.” It was a lie and they both knew it, but Vic let it go.

Carmen ran across the beach to where Byron sat with Errol and Harold.

She’d left the foster care system with two valuable lessons: adjust quickly and quietly to new surroundings and choose friends wisely.

Those lessons had been easy to practice in Whispering Cove. It had only been a matter of weeks before she and Aimee had become part of a tight circle of friends. Through those friends, they’d developed an understanding of how things worked in town.

The pace was slow and easy, unlike any other place they’d travelled through. The people held each other close and protected their own; anyone lucky enough to be included had friends who would last lifetimes. The town had a government body, but the three grandfathers—Errol, Harold and Byron—had their fingers on the town’s pulse and were rarely denied.

That power was how Carmen would get her way.

“Byron.” Her breath came in rushed pants after trudging up the sandy hill, but she had a plea to make.

“What’s the rush, Carmen?”

“Has the story already been written for tomorrow’s paper? About the gazebo design?”

“Yes. They’ll go to print as soon as the recap on today is written up.”

Yes. There was still time. “You didn’t ask them to include the drawing, did you?”

“Of course.”

“It was a mighty fine drawing, lass,” Harold interjected.

“Thank you.” She nodded absently at Harold. It was a huge compliment, but that didn’t mean she wanted to share her hobby with anyone else. “I think you should run the announcement without the drawing.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

She dropped to her knees before Byron and took his hands in hers. “You know how much you love your surprises.”

“We do.”

“What if you kept the design a secret? Make it a big reveal at the end of the parade.”

All three men narrowed their eyes and began nodding. She’d interested their inner schemers. Anything they came up with would be entirely their idea, and she was fine with that as long as she got to keep her life her own.

“Nothing says we have to announce the winning drawing in the paper.” Byron nodded faster, excited.

“We could just say Alden Landscaping won the bid,” Harold stated.

“We’d have to close the gazebo to everyone in town until it’s finished.” Errol picked up the thread, and the idea was officially theirs.

“Sky’s wedding reception is gonna be in the square.” Harold shook his head, clearly ready to veto the idea on behalf of the newcomer he’d set up at Christmas. “Her daddy won’t like it if we have the place torn up.”

“They decided to have it on the church lawn since we had planned on re-landscaping the town square.” Errol waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll do an update each week on how many of what plants, flowers, etcetera are being used.” Byron squeezed Carmen’s hands and grinned. “Carmen will be riding in a convertible at the end of the parade. When she arrives she’ll do the honors of pulling the curtain back to reveal the design.”

Damn. She’d have preferred the drawing to be in the paper. Keeping her smile pasted on her lips, she extracted her hands from Byron’s and stood. “I’ll just leave you all to your plans.”

She was still backing away when she smacked into a hard, wet, naked chest. Sparks shot through her and she knew without turning to look whom she’d run into.

Ryan.

“Woman, I don’t think they’re the only schemers in town.” His voice was a rumble of humor as she moved away from him.

“Don’t call me Woman.”

“You are one.”

“That doesn’t make it respectful.” She was stopped from saying anything more when Byron called out.

“Gunny. We need to talk.”

“I’ll see you at 0600. Don’t be late. Woman.” Ryan spoke like he had authority over her.

Carmen backed away, stopping herself from laughing in his face. She was no longer a charity case dependent on the goodwill of strangers. She no longer had to dream that she would be accepted and loved. The freedom of those realities came with the knowledge that no one, Ryan Alden included, had the power to give her commands.

CHAPTER THREE

Ryan shoved bush branches into the mulcher, each one with a little more force. The hour of 0600 had come and gone. So had 0700 and 0800. Now 0900 was nearing and still he saw no sign of Carmen Smith.

He and his crew had erected a temporary wall around the gazebo to keep people out of the work zone. Then they’d started pulling out the bushes that had rooted deeply in just a couple of years.

He needed to discuss the design with Carmen so he could get supplies ordered, but since she’d gotten her way with Byron and the announcement of her victory had been pulled from the town paper she probably thought she’d get her way with Ryan too. The first time he saw her she’d learn differently. He didn’t appreciate being stood up.

Like he’d conjured her, Carmen slipped through the last open section of the wall that would close the gazebo off for the month. With a smile and fingertip wave to his crew, she strolled across the grass. She wore straight-legged jeans rolled at the ankle and a blue-and-white-checkered top that was tied at her waist to show off a hint of skin below her belly button. The buttons were undone to the top swell of her breasts so each step enhanced them with a slight bounce. A wide, red hair band secured her hair back, keeping the bangs off her forehead.

Ryan’s body hardened, trembled, with a combination of rage and arousal.

When she lifted a paper coffee cup to her red-glossed lips, arousal knocked rage back a step. When she walked past him and sat on a bench in the gazebo, rage kicked arousal’s ass.

“Carmen,” he said, pitching his voice over the mulcher.

She nodded pleasantly.

“You can’t do landscaping work dressed like that.”

“It’s not a dress like I normally wear.” She glanced down at her clothes, studied her tennis shoes and blinked up at him. “Besides, you’re the landscaper, Gunny. I’m the designer.”

Being called Gunny had never pissed him off before. He’d worked damn hard to earn the rank before leaving the Corps. Yet, the way she said it, as if she thought for half a second she was better than him, managed to detonate his anger.

Ryan flipped the switch to turn off the mulcher. Doing an about-face on the ball of his right foot, he moved in her direction. Each step was a heel-toe strike that vibrated through his shins and up his thighs. As he neared, she lifted her head and took another drink.

Inciting him further, she smiled at his crew as they secured the last of the temporary wall. They needed to keep their eyes on their work if they wanted to keep their jobs. “You’ve gotten a lot of work done already.”

“We could have more done if you’d reported on time.”

She pointed to herself. “Artist.” She pointed at him. “Landscaper.”

She smiled with that pretty mouth of hers and all he wanted to do was wipe the cheer away. He just wasn’t sure if he’d do the wiping with his hand or his lips.

He was still trying to decide when she set her coffee on the bench. Then she stood and stepped up on the bench. The extra foot and a half put her closer to his height, and she gestured for him to come nearer.

“Guys,” he called to his crew without looking at them. “Would you excuse us, please?”

The men headed through the gate they’d erected and pushed it closed, giving him and Carmen complete privacy. Not one to back down from a challenge, Ryan took the three steps necessary to stand in front of her.

“Let’s get something straight, Gunny.” She curled her fingers into the collar of his shirt, leaned in close and spoke in that irritatingly haughty tone of hers. “You’re no longer in the Corps. I am not an enlisted grunt below your rank. The orders and militant expectations end. Now. Do we understand one another?”

Damn, but he wanted to throttle her and kiss her. Every spark that had been detonated at her touch yesterday fired in her eyes as they locked with his. His skin heated more than it had from the morning’s labor. His decision was made for him.

The woman had taunted him from a distance, awakened him with a touch and then haunted his dreams. He’d awoken hard and on edge, looking forward to seeing her. Then when she finally bothered to appear it was in a shroud of arrogance.

“Do you want to know what I understand, Woman?”

“I told you not to call me that.”

Ryan took another step. His toes bumped the bench. “You’re pissed that I didn’t ask nice enough.”

She leaned marginally closer, pinning her hand between them. “You didn’t ask at all.”

“I’m not a soft man. I don’t have the patience for female games like the other men in this town.”

“I am not playing games.”

“You’re just trying to prove you won’t be bossed around by me. That doesn’t make us equals.”

She leaned into his face, unblinking, and shook her head. “I am no man’s subordinate. If you want my help, you’ll take it on equal footing.”

He grinned. “Says the woman standing on a bench so she can have a chance of looking me in the eye.”

“But I have your attention, don’t I?”

“Oh yeah. I wonder if you captured it the way you’d hoped.” Proving the point, he placed a hand at the back of her neck and pulled her close. Her smile was gone, but he was still going to taste her sassy mouth.

Placing his lips on hers, Ryan kissed her. He didn’t devour her, though his libido urged him to. He didn’t kiss her tentatively, though she resembled an antique doll. Firm, but not demanding, he moved his lips, brushed the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip.

She opened for him, but he didn’t take the plunge. The hint of spice intrigued him. He slid his tongue over her lip again, easing the slightest bit into her mouth. Spicy and sweet. Not coffee. Chai with a sprinkle of cayenne.

Carmen moaned, tightened her hold on his collar. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. Holding her, he lifted her from the bench and turned to sit. He settled her on his lap and while every impulse told him to go for the bases, he settled for sliding his hand from her waist to her hip. His fingers sought purchase in her curves.

“Ryan,” she whispered against his lips.

“Hmm?” He moved to her neck, memorizing the softness of her flesh.

“We shouldn’t be doing this.”

“Life’s too short for shouldn’ts.”

She released the hold she had on his collar and moved her hands to his neck. Her fingers slipped into his hair. Longer than it had been in sixteen years, she found enough to grip. The light tug ramped his desire up a notch.

He nipped at her neck, pulling for only a second at her skin. She arched against him. Her breasts, shown to perfection by the low buttons on the top and the red bra peaking along the edge, swelled.

She settled her mouth at his ear and swiped her tongue across his lobe. His heart slammed against his ribs. His blood thrummed.

He could happily take her to the wood floor of the gazebo and drive deep. Instead, he trailed his mouth along her neck. Pulling her shirt and bra strap back as far as her shirt would allow, he kissed her collar bone. His free hand slid along her stomach, reached for the knot of her shirt.

A single tug was all he needed to have the knot falling free. With that gone, the shirt slipped farther up and down her shoulder. He’d never needed a woman like he found himself needing Carmen, and that made her a danger he couldn’t indulge.

Struggling to breathe evenly, he eased back.

She followed his retreat for half a second before shaking her head and moving off his lap. She turned away while she righted her clothes. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Probably not,” he agreed. Though he already wanted to do it again.

“Don’t think you won just because I let you kiss me.”

“You kissed me back, Woman.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“And you call me bossy.”

She lifted a shoulder in a jerky shrug. He still felt the satin of that shoulder on his tongue. She didn’t want him to think she was submissive. Her eagerness to argue would make the next few weeks of working together a misery, yet a part of him liked that she wanted to fight.

Not ready for the next round quite yet, he went to her. Resting a gentle hand on her shoulder he turned her. “Why don’t you call it quits for today?”

“I haven’t done anything.”

She’d done more than enough, though. “I can finish ripping out the bushes.” The exertion of some energy might help his arousal subside, though he doubted it would last long. “If you’re free later we could get together to discuss the plans.”

“What’s wrong with what I drew?”

“Too many of the plants aren’t native to Maine and some of the rock ideas won’t work. Too many little ones needed that would never stay put.”

“The plants aren’t native?”

“I don’t work with non-natives.”

She huffed. “I get it. You’re a purist snob.”

“No. I just don’t like the way they take over the area, driving out everything that belongs here.”

“Is that so?” She shook her head and stomped toward the gazebo steps. She spun at the edge and glared at him. “Just so you know, sometimes the non-natives are what add color to a place. You natives need to learn to adapt.”

She stormed away before he could form a rebuttal. Somehow he doubted they’d been talking about the same thing. He hadn’t meant her when he’d made the comment about non-natives, but the truth of the double meaning was real enough. She was a non-native and her existence in town was changing things.

 

 

Three days had passed since he’d kissed her. Aside from a meeting about what they’d need for the project, Carmen had spent those three days avoiding Ryan. Keeping busy with her friends had helped, but he’d commanded her thoughts frequently.

He’d phoned, and she’d vowed to give Byron an earful for giving her number out. He’d called to her on the street, and she’d turned the other way pretending not to notice or hear him. He’d shown up at her apartment, and she’d pretended not to be home.

The man’s determination was slightly admirable and a lot annoying. Every time she saw him or heard his voice in her voicemail she was transported back to the gazebo. Her body trembled again with the memory of his touch. A place inside her, a place she’d always kept hidden, wished he hadn’t stopped. Or that she’d had the courage to ask for more.

It was a few minutes before closing, with the last appointments gone, when the salon door opened.

“Secret wishes fade like a wind’s whisper. We’re as trustworthy as a favorite sister.” Vic often programmed short, suggestive messages in her custom door chime. The recent greeting was longer than normal, and less sexy, but as usual, the it had been stirring up conversation and kept the salon hopping with gossip.

“Welcome to The Whispering Salon,” Carmen said as she swept a small pile of hair into the dustpan. “I’ll be right with you.”

Welcoming the distraction that pulled her from her thoughts, she straightened and turned. Her wrist went lax, allowing the hair to tumble from the pan.

Ryan stood inside the door in jeans, socks and a polo shirt embroidered with Alden Landscaping. He lifted a hand in a small wave.

She wondered about his shoes, but only shook her head. Why couldn’t the man leave her alone? He’d complained about non-natives changing everything, yet he was the one in pursuit. If he wanted nothing to change he should stay away.

“I need a trim.”

Broom and empty dustpan in hand, she moved quickly and ducked into Vic’s office before he could argue. The relief on Vic’s face when she looked up from the laptop suggested she was working on her checkbook, her least favorite part of business ownership, and welcomed the distraction. “What’s up, Carmen?”

“You have a client.”

Vic looked through the two-way mirror that served as a window from her office. Her lips curled and she shook her head. “Sorry, he’s all yours.”

“I can’t cut his hair. I can’t deal with him at all right now.”

She checked her watch and shrugged. “You’re going to have to. I have to get home. The social worker is coming over to the house.”

Carmen could refuse to help him, tell him to come back another day when one of the other girls was working. That wasn’t her, though. “Fine. He wants a haircut. I’ll give him a haircut.”

Vic pressed her lips together, closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment. When she looked back at Carmen, she was near laughter. “Please don’t scalp him.”

“He was a Marine. He can handle anything I do.”

Vic gave up on resistance and laughed as Carmen headed back into the salon. With a jerk of her head, she gestured for him to follow her to the shampoo sink. She didn’t wait for him to sit before she turned the water on to adjust the temperature. Ryan grabbed a towel from the shelf and wrapped it around his neck before sitting in the chair and lowering his head into the sink.

“I’m leaving, Carmen.” Vic waved as she headed to the front door with her keys in hand. She flipped the door sign to Closed. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Saying nothing more, she closed and locked the door behind her.

Carmen hadn’t anticipated finding herself locked up with the man she’d been avoiding. The man she hoped would kiss her again.

Alone, with his eyes staring up at her, she wished she were the water running over her palm and down the drain. With no escape, she averted her gaze from his and instead focused on his hair. She’d had her hands in his hair, felt the silky strands moving between her fingers, when he’d kissed her three days ago.

If she’d been braver or more experienced she might have pulled him closer and asked for more. Swallowing regrets, she set the hose against his hairline and wet his hair. She tried to be professional and look at him like any other client. She failed.

His dark hair darkened more beneath the water, became silkier. Her stomach knotted as she squirted shampoo into her palm. Sparks erupted along her hands as she worked the cleanser into a lather.

Ryan’s eyes drifted closed, but his lids fluttered quickly. He kept them closed while she rinsed, but his fingers gripped the arms of the chair. He kept them closed while she reached for the conditioner, but his lips parted on a shaky breath when she slid her fingers into his hair again.

Not seeing the intensity of his gray gaze suited her almost as much as getting to study him privately. Waves of awareness rolled through her with each stroke of the creamy conditioner gliding through his hair. An image flashed in her mind of her straddling him while she massaged his scalp.

Shaking her head to clear the mental picture, she squeezed her fingers together, tugging lightly on his hair. He scrunched his eyes the slightest bit and released a tiny moan. His throat rippled with a swallow.

Her mouth watered with the desire to have him stretched out, shirtless, before her. She bit back a moan of her own and rolled her hips as the picture of her straddling him returned. She could glide her slippery hands over his chest and down his stomach to the waist of his pants. To the buckle, button and zipper… Her eyes widened when she followed the path of her fantasy and saw the length of his arousal.

Carmen shook her head—hard and fast—to clear the haze. Turning her face to the ceiling, she sent up a silent prayer for control. Needing to get a grip, and not on him, she quickly rinsed his hair and tugged at the towel around his neck.

Ryan sat up and asked quietly, huskily, “Where do you want me?”

Her brain shut down, allowing no thoughts or actions to be processed.

“Carmen?”

She blinked and then nodded to the second of the four chairs. Once he’d settled, and she’d recovered some control over her breathing, she followed him. Unsure of what to say, other than asking what kind of cut he wanted, she silently snapped the collar of the cape at his neck before pulling out her scissors, comb and clippers.

“I hope you’re only using those clippers to clean up my neck.”

She picked up the comb and began working it through his hair. “Sure.”

“Damn, Woman. I’d almost forgotten the sound of your voice.”

The demand that he stop calling her Woman in that degrading and militant tone of his lay heavy on her tongue. She’d always had a problem with overbearing men, though, for once, something had her gritting her teeth instead of giving him the pleasure of getting a rise out of her.

With his hair combed smooth, she picked up her scissors to begin trimming.

“I like it short.”

She nodded, meeting his gaze briefly in the mirror, but said nothing.

“And she slips back into silence.”

The salon was empty, except for the sound of her snipping blades. Her mind was full, though. Full of the man sitting before her. His scent. His size. The impression of his hair in her hands.

Wet. Cool. Silken. She almost didn’t want to cut off the ends that had begun to curl around his ears. As militant as he was, the unruly look suited him. Not that he needed anything else to add to his appeal.

“Are you pissed that I kissed you, or pissed that I stopped?”

She set the scissors on the counter and then used her clippers to clean up his neck. When she finished, unsnapped the cape and motioned for him to get up, Ryan turned the chair and looked at her. He watched while she swept up his hair and the hair she’d dropped earlier. His gaze moved warm and liquid through her veins until her entire body was a pool of warm arousal, just as she’d felt washing his hair. And when he’d kissed her.

She’d cut his hair. He’d looked at her. What about any of that was arousing?

“It wasn’t the kiss, was it, Carmen?”

Her name on his lips, spoken with the slow pace of Whispering Cove, took her desire up a notch. She wanted to explain, to tell him how much he’d hurt her, but she didn’t want him to know the kind of power he had over her. Ryan Alden was a man who loved power and wouldn’t hesitate to use it to win.

“I think you misunderstood what I meant about non-natives. I was talking about plants.”

She shrugged. He may have meant plants, but he wouldn’t be able to deny he’d thought the theory applied to people—her—as well.

“You can’t ignore me forever. Not if you want any say on how your design is executed. Or if you want the 3-D figures to look right.”

She headed toward the door to unlock it for him, not caring about payment. She only cared about getting distance from her awakening desires.

He rested his hand on hers over the door and looked down to meet her gaze. Reading him was impossible, other than to know that whatever he felt or thought was intense and heated. Then she remembered the length of his erection that had pressed against the zipper of his pants and her cheeks heated more than his stare.

“Carmen. Let me buy you dinner. We can talk about the gazebo project.”

The words about to come out of her mouth were unwise, quite possibly the most unwise thing she’d ever said, but she took the leap. “I don’t want people to know I’m involved with that.”

“People are going to know.”

“Eventually.” With as much thought and effort as she’d put into the design, she wanted to see it executed. She wanted to help even if that meant working with Ryan and playing into Byron’s matchmaking hands. “If we’re going to keep the design a secret, like the council wants, we shouldn’t be discussing it in public.”

Ryan locked his gaze with hers, brushed the tips of his fingers across her knuckles, and spoke quietly. “Are you inviting me to your place, Carmen?”

Borrowing a page from her sister’s book of bravery, Carmen nodded. She could allow Ryan in without risking too much. The only man who’d ever been in her apartment had been Josh, but he didn’t really count because he was her brother-in-law and he’d been picking up his daughter.

There was nothing so innocent when it came to Ryan and the way he affected her. “Yes. I’m asking you to come to my place.”

“I’ll grab a pizza and meet you there.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Ryan had considered kissing her in the salon. Hell, she’d had him on the verge of grabbing her and pulling her into his lap from the moment she slipped her fingers into his hair at the wash sink. Then she invited him to her place.

He could have invited her to his, but he preferred more privacy than his apartment above the garage of his parents’ home offered. And until he knew why he was drawn to her, why he couldn’t dislodge the memory of her curves against him, and what he wanted to do about it, if anything, he wasn’t in the mood to share her.

She’d avoided him without even having met his family. Meeting them wouldn’t likely endear her to him. He didn’t need their scrutiny.

With a warm pizza in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, Ryan toed off his dirty boots and set them against the wall. Using his foot, he rapped twice on the metal door and called, “It’s Ryan.”

Carmen answered his knock quickly, which offered a change of pace from standing on her stoop like an ass. She scanned him quickly, frowning when she got to his feet. “What’s with you and shoes. Don’t you wear them indoors?”

“Not my work boots.” He lifted the pizza box. “I brought dinner.”

“Dinner doesn’t come in a box.”

“Do a tour during wartime. A box never looked so good.”

“I’ll have to trust you on that.” She jerked her head and stepped back, indicating he could enter. The gesture was casual, but her neck and shoulders were tense, like she didn’t often allow people into her space.

Ryan followed, taking the chance while it lasted. “I’m a trustworthy guy.”

Her response was muffled, but he found himself struggling to focus beyond the decor. Her clothes and hair and creamy complexion weren’t the only part of her that suggested she was living in the wrong time.

A black and white checker print rug dominated the living area’s floor. Centered on the rug was a round, glass-topped table with a red couch and two yellow chairs around it. The furniture and every knick-knack and picture in the place had to have come straight from the fifties.

Following her to the small kitchen, he saw that she’d carried on the same theme, though there was only so much she could do with the building standards of the modern-day apartment. She’d compensated for the modern by bringing in touches that made the room look like a diner. He could so easily picture her with an apron over her dress as she moved around the room in heels to cook a real meal.

“You decorate yourself?”

“Yes.” She pulled out a couple of plates.

He set the pizza box on the silver-edged table with plastic-covered chairs and turned to take the dishes. His chuckle escaped. They were shaped like vinyl records with the edges curved up. The centers were even painted with a label to identify the album. The two she’d pulled down were for Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”.

“Carmen, do you ever feel like you’re living in the wrong decade?”

She smiled as she closed a cabinet, holding two wine glasses. “Life then seemed simpler.”

Ah. She was an idealist. Life had never been simple, though. According to his parents, the fifties had been filled with people struggling with major changes, like the introduction of TV and rock ‘n’ roll being two big ones. It was a time of discovery. A time when family ideals began to shift, to make room for something new. Maybe that’s why it appealed to Carmen. Maybe she was in a time of self-discovery.

“Whispering Cove is pretty simple.”

She nodded. “That’s why Aimee and I stayed. We loved it as soon as we arrived.”

He pulled Carmen’s chair out for her and then sat beside her. He could go for some simple. “Aimee’s your sister, right? I heard she married Josh Bryan.”

“Yeah. Long story short, she was a fling he couldn’t let go.” Carmen flipped open the box and served him before sliding a piece onto her plate. “Turns out she didn’t want him to.”

“I heard someone say they’d be back in town for the parade. There’s a rumor floating that Josh will do another concert.”

Carmen shook her head. “They’ll be back, but not for him to do a concert. This is his home between appearances and when he’s here his only plan is to spend time with Aimee and Kendall.”

“It has to be rough to be Josh. People always wanting something from him.”

“Even in Whispering Cove people can forget that sometimes all anyone wants is to be left alone.”

The loneliness Ryan had witnessed on the beach crept into her tone. He didn’t think she wanted to be left alone so much as he suspected it had become a state of normalcy for her. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask about her family, other than Aimee. He changed tactics, choosing instead something he thought she’d find safer.

“So, about the gazebo.”

“Yes.” She perked up, like she was relieved he’d changed the subject. “How’s that going?”

“We have the old bushes pulled and the bed area is ready for plants. I was thinking, instead of flowers and plants for every picture, we could alternate.”

“What do you mean?”

“In one section we could dye the mulch from the bushes we pulled and use it around the base of a large rock with one of your pictures painted on it. Then the next section would be plants or maybe a few flowers at the base of the rock statues.”

“What about the border?”

“I liked the white in your drawing, so I was thinking a white turtlehead outline around each section.”

She nibbled on her slice of pizza and watched him steadily. “It doesn’t sound like you need my help planning what to use.”

“No, but you deserve a say. It’s your design.”

“I drew the strip of pictures around the gazebo because I thought it would be a cool way for people to see the history of Whispering Cove without feeling like they were in a museum.”

“You didn’t have any thought on how it would look if it was done?”

“No, and frankly I wish I hadn’t let Byron talk me into entering and I wish I hadn’t won.”

“I can handle the materials, Carmen. And the heavy lifting. I’m not an artist, though.”

“I sketch a little.” She shrugged her shoulders. “That doesn’t make me an artist.”

Her shoulder shrug spoke louder than any words she chose. She didn’t want to think of herself as an artist any more than he wanted to be a landscaper. What he’d failed to notice while fighting the idea of working with her was that she’d felt a connection to her subject.

Her feelings for Whispering Cove had come through in each stroke she’d laid on the page, but what she didn’t realize, or maybe she did, was that she was gifted. She may enjoy the life she’d created for herself, but she could have more than a small apartment and a job cutting hair if she allowed herself to believe.

“I did some traveling in the Corps. Saw some things. Toured some museums.” To make his mother happy. Carmen rolled her eyes, but Ryan continued. “Woman, you’re an artist.”

She tensed when he called her Woman, but she didn’t comment on it. “Why plants instead of flowers? And why dye the mulch instead of smaller, colored rock?”

“Rock is more expensive than the mulch and flowers die and have to be replaced more often than plants.”

“So you want to do something that’s basically maintenance free.” She served him another slice of pizza. He hadn’t even realized he’d eaten, he was enjoying her company so much.

“It’s easier on the town’s budget.”

She shrugged, again minimizing herself. He’d thought her to be a strong and confident woman when he’d watched her with the friends she’d made in town. Her friends had been a few years behind him in school, but he knew them well enough to know they’d never lacked confidence. She seemed to fit in smoothly with them; it was when she was alone she seemed different.

The unexpected side of her drew him faster than a bowl of cookies called to a sweet tooth. Maybe it was how clearly he remembered her reactions. Her touch. Her taste.

“Carmen.”

She glanced sideways, looking leery. “What?”

Ryan risked rejection and leaned close. “You never answered my question earlier.”

“What question?”

“Were you pissed that I kissed you or that I stopped? Or was it something else entirely?”

Her throat bobbed as she turned her head to him. Her hands flattened on her legs before her. “I wasn’t mad about the kiss.”

“That we stopped?”

She shook her head.

“So it was the comment about the non-natives.” He leaned a fraction closer, close enough now to catch the scent of shampoo and hair product she’d used during the day at work. “You thought since I had that view on plants it would transfer to you.”

She nodded.

He angled his head, watched her. “You weren’t too far off base.”

“Ugh.” She lunged back. “The women in the salon were right.”

“Yeah?” He didn’t move. Carmen would relax soon and when she did she’d be close again. “What did the town gossips say about me?”

“That you’re cold, almost cruel. When you set your sights on a woman you rock her world, but the thing people remember you most for is your skill at running away.”

He smiled. It never hurt a man’s ego to hear women call him a world rocker. As for the leaving part, truth was truth and there was no point denying it. He hadn’t stayed away and he wasn’t a player, now, though. “So that’s why you reacted the way you did on the beach.”

“What way?”

“Surprised when I approached, though I have to say you recovered your surface cheer quickly.”

She leaned close, confronting him. “My cheer is not surface.”

“Not always.” He drew in a deep breath and caught the scent of salon shampoo that blended with the pizza dinner.

“You’re not even going to defend yourself against what they said?”

“No.”

She made a face like she was disgusted with him, which only made him smile because she was dropping her public masks. He was going to have to get her alone more often.

“Fine.” He digressed. “I used to date girls, fool around with them and then break up if they began to get serious. Sixteen years ago.”

“They talked like it was recent.”

“I’ve only been back a couple of months.” He leaned in and with his cheek almost brushing hers drew in the clean aroma of her shampoo. He whispered, “You’re the first, the only, woman I’ve kissed since coming home.”

 

“Why?” Carmen asked, wanting to believe him.

The idea that everything she’d heard was based on who he was sixteen years ago, when he was only a kid, suggested that he could be different. If he could change who he was, maybe people really could change and become something more. Something better.

“Why did I behave like I did in school? Or why are you the only woman I’ve kissed since coming back?”

“Both.”

“I never thought I belonged here.”

“So you never let people in as your way of proving that.”

He shrugged, not wanting to think about it.

“Why would you think you didn’t belong here?”

“It’s complicated.” His voice was barely a breath below her ear. “Turns out I was right and wrong.”

“So.” Her voice crackled, forcing her to clear her throat. Unsure of what he meant by that, yet feeling like he wouldn’t discuss it further, though she was curious, she pursued the topic that made her very uncomfortable without turning to face him more fully. “What about the kissing?”

He turned his head enough that his nose brushed her jaw, his breath warmed her. “Did you not enjoy the kissing?”

Her eyelids, too heavy to hold open, fell. “That’s not an answer.”

“Woman, you could drive a man to madness.”

He practically growled woman and, for the first time, instead of irritating her, it sent a sexy shiver down her spine.

“I’ve only kissed you, because only you arouse me. You shook my hand, placed your hand on my arm, and I was captured. You argued with me, kissed me in that gazebo, and I was sunk. I won’t even think about the haircut.”

She dug her nails into her thighs. Her breaths rasped through her open mouth. It was the kind of thing Josh said to Aimee, and it was the kind of thing she’d never thought to hear aimed at her.

Her voice, when she found it, was so hushed she barely heard it in the silence of her kitchen. “You can’t mean that.”

He raised one hand, rested it on her jaw and turned her face to his. “I can,” he whispered against her lips.

Holy shit! She opened her eyes and found herself a prisoner of want. Want shone in his gray eyes, lighting them up so they looked silver. Want rolled through muscles and cells, wrapping her in an inescapable cocoon.

“I’ve spent more time the last three days trying to get you to talk to me than I have working.” He shook his head, never blinking or breaking his gaze. “That isn’t like me.”

“It’s not like me to ignore someone. You irritate me, though.”

“I think I know the feeling.”

Carmen licked her lips, extending her tongue just enough that the tip touched his mouth.

“Stand up.”

She had fought him in the gazebo, stood on that bench and insisted she was no man’s subordinate. Still, she found herself following his command to stand and there was no way to take it as anything more than a command.

When she was on her feet, he placed his hands on her waist, and lifted her so they were eye level. She could lean into a kiss without craning her neck or without him having to bend like a pretzel to reach her. It had made her feel like an equal when she wanted to fight him, but on the beach, with her hand on his arm and his towering height beside her, she’d felt protected to be smaller.

She kind of preferred the height difference. Until he eased in and pressed his lips against hers. Then only the feel of his mouth on hers and the taste of pepperoni lingering on his tongue mattered.

Emboldened by his claims, Carmen reached for him. Her hands trembled against his shoulders. Her stomach and legs were shaking too, but it wasn’t with anger or fear. And she sure didn’t want to give him a reason to stop.

Pressing deeper into the kiss, she slipped her hands up his neck and into the hair she’d trimmed. Her eyelids fell closed as she surrendered. Ryan moved his hands, one at a time, so he cupped her ass and held her tight against him.

She lifted her legs and wrapped them around his waist. The position settled her against the erection pressing against his jeans.

He nibbled a path down her neck and to the V collar of her dress. Her skin danced beneath his attentions. He might leave her if things became too serious. Some people really didn’t change. Then the voices of her friends played in her head, told her to have fun while it lasted.

“Where’s your bedroom, Carmen?”

“Last door on the left.”

His mouth stayed busy at her neck as he walked. She took the time to move her hands over his shoulders and back. Firm, almost hard, he was steady beneath her. Then her fingers brushed a spot just to the right of his spine, beside his shoulder blade, and he twitched, jerking her closer for a second.

She smiled at the idea of having some power over him and repeated the stroke. He twitched again as he crossed the threshold into her room.

Ryan stumbled to a halt and pulled back from his caresses. Confusion marred the sharp lines of his face as he looked at her. “Twin beds, Carmen?”

“So?”

“Was it really necessary to carry the fifties theme all the way into here?”

“Why not?”

“No reason if you bring lovers your size in here.”

“Oh.” She looked behind her at the beds and pursed her lips. “It’s never been an issue.”

Still holding her, he dropped his forehead to her shoulder. “You’ve never had a man in here?”

Carmen shook her head and swallowed. This was her chance to experience what Aimee and all their friends had talked about. Grateful that his head was down, she cast her gaze to the ceiling and leapt. “I’ve never…”

Like life had been put on slow motion, Ryan lifted his head and met her gaze. The want and desire were still there, but so was the last thing she wanted to see the first time she allowed a man into her room. Caution. “You’re a virgin?”

“No.” Holding her breath, afraid he’d put her down and leave, she shook her head. “I’m not. I just… It’s been a long time.”

“You said Byron’s setting us up.”

“I did.”

“He must still be holding a grudge about his car windshield.”

“Are you saying I’m a punishment?”

“I’m saying the old codger has a wicked sense of humor.”

Desire turned to dread the longer he spoke. Things were so much easier when he kissed her, but she couldn’t put a plea together that he finish what he’d started.

Ryan walked toward the bed and sank down, still holding her. “After all these years he’s gotten his revenge.”

“Revenge.” She pushed away and out of his arms. “If that’s how you think of me…” She turned sideways and pointed to the door, unwilling to look at him. “Just leave.”

“That isn’t… Damn, Woman. You’re a frustration.”

With the spell of his touch broken, she spun and looked at him. “I have a name and it isn’t Woman.”

“I know your name.” He reached out, snagged her wrist and yanked her toward him so she stood in front of him. His legs bracketed her on either side. “You’re misunderstanding.”

“A woman doesn’t have to have a long history of lovers to know a slam when she hears one.” She pulled away again, this time moving far enough away that he couldn’t reach her. “It’s really a shame for you, because I can do the splits across the two beds. That could have been interesting.”

“Carmen.”

She pointed to the door. “I think you should leave, Ryan. I’ll help you at the site, but we’re finished exploring this side of us.”

No woman, regardless of her experience level, would feel arousal when a man called her a punishment. Ryan Alden had shown promise for a brief meal and then he’d shown how little he’d changed after all. The glimpse of belonging she’d had vanished when he stood and walked out.