Serenades

PAGE RATING: R

Whispering Cove, Book 9

Aimee Smith found a home and friends in Whispering Cove. During the Fall Festival she found no-strings fun in the arms of her favorite country singer. Then her fling left town—and she discovered how much of himself he left behind.

Josh Bryan loved life on the road—until one Whispering Cove waitress ruined it. Not that he’s complaining. Before her, there were willing women at every stop, but none stayed in his mind, under his skin, or left him wanting a second taste. Not like her.

Almost fourteen months later, with Christmas festivities in full swing, Aimee’s days at the bar are long and her nights walking the floor are longer. Yet she’s never been happier, at least until Josh walks into the bar in a swirl of snow.

The truth could send him running, have him accusing her of setting a trap…or be her one chance to prove she wants him for more than just his money and fame. That is, if he’s willing to take a chance there’s something between them deeper than passion.

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

“This is a big one.” Aimee Smith slid her tray onto the bar and immediately began grabbing drink napkins and a freshly filled bowl of nut mix. “A pitcher of egg nog—not the virgin kind—four Coors, three mojitos, two whiskey sours, a Screaming Orgasm, a Hole In One, Sex at My House, a Dick the Halls and a Piña Cock-a-lada.”

Hauk Michaelsen simply lifted a blond brow at Aimee’s winter name for a piña colada, but he couldn’t hide the smile winking in his eyes. The man who’d seemed so serious at first glance had a sense of humor that rivaled his Norse god good looks. It probably came in handy with his new wife, Vic, because she was always ready to make people smile or laugh with her borderline bawdy humor.

“Another round of rums over here!” Byron Mitchell yelled from the table he was sharing with his meddling pals, Errol and Harold, and Sky, the town’s newest target of gossip. “I gotta leave soon.”

Hauk waved off Byron. The old men had taken it upon themselves to see that all the kids of marrying age were paired off. With the results of their schemes, no one was complaining. “You gonna rename every drink we serve?”

“You have to admit, they fit the theme of the clientele. Besides, men don’t seem to be interested in drinking Cocks Light.” She winked. “At least not the straight ones.”

“You could come up with less obscene names.”

“Less obscene and alcohol do not belong in the same zip code, Hauk. And you sell more of the mixed drinks when I rename them.”

“Or make them up, like your Dick the Halls?”

She’d created the drink during the Fall Festival two falls ago when she’d played bartender for a private party of two—her and the greatest fling a woman could want. With 7UP, rum and a splash of dark crème de menthe, it was a light drink that warmed up the insides. Considering how cold it got in Whispering Cove at Christmas it had become one of the more popular drinks of the season. That it was the cheerful green of the holiday only made it more fun.

She sighed, as she always did when she thought about the night she’d created the drink. It had been cold outside, but inside… She hadn’t needed alcohol to warm her blood.

After filling the order and placing the drinks on her tray, Hauk covered her hand. His friendly gaze locked with hers. “Aimee, how is it motherhood hasn’t settled you down more?”

“I’m plenty settled. With Kendall.” The thought of her sweet little girl had her heart sighing and her breasts hardening with the desire to nurse.

“Why doesn’t Carmen bring her down?” He nodded toward the crowded table in the corner, filled with their closest friends. “She’s the only one of the gang missing.”

“Tonight is children free. Besides, they’re at Carmen’s place. Apparently they had some last-minute shopping and gift wrapping to do.”

“Seems a shame to miss the party.” He set the last drink on her tray. “Maybe you can talk her into joining the fun when she gets here.”

The place was jammed with people who’d gone to the tree lighting in the square. She’d covered the bar while Hauk went to the lighting with Vic and Sophie. He’d cover for her, like he did every night, when she took an extended mommy break.

“I’ll do my best.” Aimee checked her watch—Hauk didn’t allow a clock in the bar so people would more easily forget about responsibilities and deadlines while they were there. “I’m going to make a final pass of my tables before going on break.”

“Never doubted you.”

Aimee hugged his confidence close as she hefted the large tray. In the two years since she and her sister had stopped in Whispering Cove, she’d gotten as used to the lifestyle as her arms had gotten used to carrying heavy trays.

Years of roaming aimlessly, hoping to find a place to belong, had ended when they stepped onto the town’s cobbled streets. They had found jobs they loved, made friends and been taken in as part of a community that was more accurately one large family sharing a home called Whispering Cove.

Aimee had dated a few guys in town, but had only gone to bed with one. When she learned she was pregnant, regardless of how careful she’d been, she’d found none of the expected judgment and ridicule that would have come from many of her foster families. She’d simply found support.

“I’m going on break soon.” Aimee stopped by the table in the corner and began unloading drinks for the group that had grown gradually louder as the night wore on. “You guys need anything else?”

Dani and Braydon, Katy and Trent, Andie and Brodie, Josie and Adam, Tabby and Reece. If it wasn’t a table full of newlyweds and adoring couples enjoying a few hours away from infant and toddler interruptions, the heated looks shooting across the bar between Lila and Jon as he played pool might seem out of place.

“For you to tell that horrible boss of yours you’re grabbing Carmen and Kendall and joining us the rest of the night.” Vic laughed as she waved at her new husband, Hauk. He smiled indulgently but shook his head. No way was he giving Aimee the night off when nearly every chair and stool in the place was filled and the only other waitress working was Trinity. She wasn’t a bad waitress, she just wasn’t fast or openly friendly.

Vic and Lila were the only two without a man at the table though their single status didn’t cool the heat that circled them. Sky wasn’t falling for the town as quickly as Lila and Aimee had, but once people had warmed up to her they’d done their best to win her over. Including Byron, who was currently leading her toward the dance floor like she was as valuable as the glass art she created.

Aimee joked that though she’d been told stories about everyone in Whispering Cove being matched up faster than the animals on the Ark, she doubted the same would happen for her. Vic only had to look across the bar to flirt with her man.

“He works you too hard,” Vic said.

“While I’m sure you would be the only person able to talk him into that, we’re short staffed and I need the money.”

Vic sighed dramatically as she lifted her almost empty glass. “That’s what Carmen said you’d say when she insisted on babysitting Kendall.”

“I didn’t know Carmen turned you down for me.” Guilt stung Aimee’s heart. Granted they’d been apart too long as kids and wanted to stick close as adults, but that didn’t mean always sacrificing fun and happiness for each other. “I could have gotten a sitter.”

“You need a prescription to cure that guilt?” Vic asked.

“I have one.” Dr. Dani smiled her sweetest bedside manner smile. A gleam of wicked peeked through. “You need an orgasm. Stat!”

“And there’s no shortage of men in this town who’d give you one,” Katy said with the smooth confidence she offered the viewers of her cooking show. “If you need help choosing one, we could whisper in Byron’s ear.”

Braydon shushed Dani and Katy while watching Byron across the bar. “Say that too loud and you’ll have Grandpa over here crowing about his success with us.”

“Or telling us we should be busy making bigger families,” Brody laughed with an echoing glance toward Harold.

“Or getting after Jon for still being the only one of us without a ring on his finger.” Katy waved at her cousin who smiled from his spot by the pool table. “Then again, if he sticks around to join Dani’s practice, Grandpa Errol will have plenty of time to deal with him.”

“You guys make it sound like you resent their matchmaking schemes.” Aimee laughed as she loaded their empties on the tray. “Fact is, I know better, and I wish I was half as lucky as you to have someone care enough to meddle for me.”

The pub door opened, carrying in a swirl of cold. The chill of near-Christmas air brushed Aimee’s neck, freshly exposed by the new pixie-style haircut Vic had given her. With the chill came a blanket of warm familiarity that had nothing to do with the expected appearance of her daughter or sister.

“Watch what you ask for,” Braydon mumbled. “It may have just walked in the door.”

“Holy shit.” Vic drew the two words, three small and seemingly harmless syllables, into ten long ones. Her next statement confirmed what Aimee knew without looking to see who’d entered. “Dani, that’s some prescription.”

“The holiday festivities just got a lot more interesting.” Andie’s laugh cemented the insight. “And I suspect the concert too.”

The familiarity Aimee had felt moved with a distinct maleness. Warmth engulfed her veins despite the chill on her skin. Her lungs struggled for oxygen. She closed her eyes and counted to three. She knew who she’d see when she turned. As clearly as she felt him from across the room, the knowledge that she’d have to talk to him, tell him, snapped in place.

She turned.

Just inside the now-closed door, with flakes of white still settling on his shoulders and the floor around him, stood the man she’d prepared herself never to see again. His traditional cowboy hat and denim jacket had been replaced by a beanie, scarf and heavy coat that failed to conceal his sex appeal.

“What are you going to do?”

Hide.

“Are you okay?”

No.

Lila looked between Aimee and her questioning friends. There had been questions and guesses about Kendall’s father. Most of them Aimee ignored. Others she denied.

Only a select handful of people knew the truth, the few she could trust to keep their mouths closed, and aside from Hauk and Carmen they were at the table in front of her. Her friends had encouraged her to tell him, and as far as they knew she was the reason Kendall’s father didn’t know about her. Aimee’d never admitted to them that he hadn’t bothered to return the messages she left for him. Even now, none of her friends mentioned she’d have to fess up to the father of her daughter.

“I’m fine.” Aimee forced a plastic smile that would have made Barbie proud and lifted the tray she’d set on the edge of their table.

“Stop.” Vic ordered in a quiet mother’s tone she’d mastered with her stepdaughter. She stood and took the tray from Aimee. “You’re not fine. You’re on break. I’ll cover for you if Hauk needs the help.”

“But it’s my job.”

Vic nodded toward the door to the kitchen. “It gives me a reason to be near my man.”

“You mean kiss him,” Tabby chuckled.

“None of you are any better,” Vic challenged. “Aimee, you take as long as you need.”

Taking advantage of the excuse before time ran out and he saw her, Aimee shifted into the shadowy corners of the pub and edged her way to the kitchen door, keeping her eyes on the entrance the whole way.

His scarf, beanie and three-day beard weren’t much of a disguise, but it seemed to keep people beyond her table of friends from recognizing him. He couldn’t hide his identity from Aimee, though.

His walk. His wide-legged stance. His dark brows and darker eyes. Even the stubble darkening his square jaw that called attention to his kissable mouth. It was all part of a package she’d know blindfolded.

The man exuded power. Seeing him again, though he didn’t seem to have seen her yet, reminded her why she’d been drawn to him.

Josh Bryan.

Singer.

Songwriter.

Sex symbol.

His posters were plastered on walls across the world. His songs sent women into fits of sighs. His touches… His touches had blasted Aimee straight to the heavens, and try as she might to forget them, and she’d tried, she’d been reminded of them every day since.

Desperate to talk to him, to hear the smooth glide of her name on his lips, to see him look at her with the passion they’d shared over a year ago, Aimee continued toward escape. Six steps would have her at the end of the bar separating them. Three beyond that and she’d be in the kitchen where Carmen would come in with Kendall.

Vic sat the tray of empties on the bar and drew Hauk’s attention. “Aimee’s on break.”

“Something happen? You okay?” he asked Aimee as he turned to her.

Aimee tried not to notice the concern that deepened his gaze and his tone with cautiousness, as if he was gearing up to kick someone’s teeth down their throat for stepping out of line.

“She’s fine.” Vic cast a quick glance toward Josh as a silent answer to Hauk.

Even if she hadn’t been facing him, Aimee would have known Josh was heading toward the bar. Heading closer to her. The warmth of his power growing nearer tingled across her nape with awareness.

Retreat, a quick one, became a critical necessity. Before he could see her, Aimee ducked into the kitchen. Drew, the new cook barely out of high school, nodded a greeting and turned instantly back to his work. He was new to the bar and hadn’t settled into the idea of relaxing at work. They’d wear him down, but she had more pressing concerns at the moment.

Curious, Aimee pushed to the tips of her toes and grabbed the doorframe for stability. She peaked through the window of the swinging door and like the first time she’d seen Josh, she found herself captivated more fully than a kid at a magic show.

At the bar, Josh slid onto a stool and greeted Hauk as easily as if he was a regular. Hauk, being one of the few to know her secret, gave a knowing nod and returned the greeting. They didn’t talk long, but each second that passed was pregnant with a naked truth expanding in Aimee’s soul.

Why he was in town didn’t matter. He was and she couldn’t avoid him for long.

“You okay?” Drew asked as he moved a large pan to the sink.

“Yes.” No.

As if he felt her watching him, Josh looked toward the door she hid behind. She ducked back but not before seeing the hint of a smile that pinched the corners of his eyes. She remembered that smile. It was the one that said he knew who he was and that he could get his way if he poured on the charm.

“Oh crap.” Her words dragged dreadfully.

Josh was more dangerous when he only gave that hint of a smile. When he smiled like that his eyes spoke of seduction. She’d been eager to indulge in his seduction.

Standing, he turned more fully her way. The back door to the kitchen opened and Carmen hustled inside with Kendall’s carrier hooked on her arm. Drew dropped the pan in the sink with a splash. His neck turned pink, as it did every time he saw Carmen. Kendall pulled Aimee’s attention to her with a cry. In that same moment Aimee saw the scene that would unfold in seconds, and she suddenly didn’t care how her sister affected Drew.

Josh would come in, see Kendall and know. He couldn’t not know. Their little girl looked just like him with her almost black eyes and dark brown hair. Her little lips would one day grow into the wider mouth that would dominate her face when she smiled. Just like her father.

“Carmen!” Aimee darted from the door to her sister and immediately began shoving her toward the stairs that led up to Hauk’s old apartment where she now lived. “Take Kendall upstairs.”

“But—”

“Now! Please. I’ll explain in a little bit.”

The door to the bar eased open and the noise from beyond grew louder. Carmen’s back was to the kitchen, hopefully enough to hide the carrier she held. She wasn’t one to be easily persuaded, though.

“What’s going on?” She turned on the steps. Her eyes drifted over Aimee’s head and snapped instantly wider. “Ooooh.”

He was inside, but he hadn’t seen Kendall yet. With the hood on the carrier pulled up and the blankets tucked around her the most he’d see was the carrier.

“Carmen.” Quietly and through closed lips, Aimee begged her sister to humor her. If she’d ever needed blind participation she needed it now. “Please.”

“You can’t not tell him,” Carmen whispered.

“I know. I will. Just not right this second. Not like this.” Aimee looked pleadingly toward the top of the stairs. “Please.”

“Fine.” Carmen smiled over Aimee’s head and before she turned to go upstairs, she tossed out a grinning, “Hi, Josh.”

He said nothing, but Drew made some excuse and left the kitchen. The bar noise rose and fell again as he did. Aimee could only watch her baby, who wouldn’t quietly wait for dinner much longer, be taken upstairs. The increasing pressure of needing to nurse and the anticipation of being face-to-face with Josh grew in her chest.

With a bracing exhale, she turned.

Josh had unwound his scarf and unzipped his coat. The opening revealed a T-shirt tightly wrapping his pecs and abs. He wasn’t a big man, but Aimee had spent hours exploring his chest and abs with all their subtle bulges and ridges.

She swallowed.

“Hi, Aims. Aimee.”

His shortened use of her name was a gut punch. He’d always shortened her name, calling her Aims instead of Aimee. The intimacy, the profound suggestion that she was his, swept through her as powerfully now as it had then.

“Josh.” Please let me get through this. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not here. At least not until tomorrow night.”

“What?”

He shrugged. “Byron talked me into playing at tomorrow’s concert. He’d have a fit if he knew I stopped here first.”

“You’re the surprise guest.” In more ways than one. “He’s out there. How’d you get by him?”

“He’s dancing.”

“Sky. Right.” She’d forgotten about the woman seducing the old men with her artistic touch.

“I hadn’t realized how much I missed this place. Or how good the peace of it could be for my writing.”

“So you’re here to write?” If he’d come for her he wouldn’t have waited so long. If he’d given her a thought he would have returned a message or two. He’d have told his manager to let her backstage when she’d gone to a concert to talk to him. He’d blocked her, though, and now here he stood as if he’d never rebuffed her.

“The concert is work. The new music…” He shrugged one shoulder in a show of doubt she’d never witnessed in him. “I’m hoping that works better in Whispering Cove.”

“You say that like you’ve been struggling.” The tabloids, award shows and TV interviews reflected a different angle of his life.

“I have. I haven’t been able to get Whispering Cove, you, off my mind.” He took a step closer. “You wouldn’t be trying to avoid me, would you?”

She didn’t move. She was going to have to stand up to him sooner or later. Now was as good a time as any for that first step.

“You were the one who didn’t return a call.”

He took another step. “You didn’t call.”

“I did. Even went to a concert.” She’d done everything she could think of when she’d found out she was pregnant. Then she’d given up and too much time had passed for him to ever believe it wasn’t a ploy intended to trap him.

“I didn’t know.” Another step. Only a few feet separated them. “Maybe I would have come back.”

“No.” Her heart kicked excitedly. She wanted to believe he could want to be with her enough to change his lifestyle. She’d wanted to believe it when he first came to town and when she’d tried to contact him. She wanted to believe it now despite his lack of response to her attempts. Regardless of his rebuff, the months apart had done nothing to lessen her feelings for him. Or make her stop thinking about him.

For nine months she’d carried his child. Almost five months had passed in single-mom-ville and, with thousands of miles separating them, he’d been a daily part of her life.

“Why not?”

“You coming back for me would’ve made us more than a fling.” She shook her head to reinforce her argument. If she gave in, even a little, she’d fall victim to the hope that had had her reaching for the phone on more than one occasion, especially in the early morning hours when she cradled Kendall back to sleep after nursing. “You said yourself you wouldn’t be trapped into anything more.”

Another step. “Maybe I’ve been regretting that.”

Her leg muscles twitched with the urge to close the remaining distance. Her hands fluttered at her sides in an instinctive need to touch.

It was Christmas. The time of year for a single woman to fantasize about a sexy man to share the cold nights with. When the man was famous, kind and generous in bed then one night with the fantasy was enough to satisfy her for months. Her emotions were still all over the hormone-o-sphere from having a baby. That had to be why she was more susceptible than normal.

The weight of tears and emotion and the pent-up dreams of an orphaned girl who’d yearned to be wanted flared into an image of an adult woman dropping to her knees and begging for his words to be true.

With the begging came a flying heart rate and buzzing brain.

Wanting to believe him was easy. Almost automatic. Self-preservation kicked in and screamed for her to get away from him, for her to say something, anything, to get him to leave before he could disappoint her.

He didn’t know about Kendall, and now, with her baby upstairs, hungry and no doubt ready to start wailing any moment, wasn’t the time to break the news. Unless she wanted to prove his words for the pretty lie they were. Telling him about their daughter would certainly have him running if good luck were her friend.

He would regret his return more than his departure.

If bad luck was haunting her, he’d accuse her of going to lengths greater than any other woman to trap him. Hell, avoiding traps was the whole reason she’d agreed to a fling with him. She hadn’t wanted strings either.

But if he meant what he was saying, if he’d missed her and wanted to be with her, there was a chance he would accept Kendall. That they could be a family.

No! If Josh meant what he was saying, he wouldn’t have been in every tabloid with a different woman each time. He’d been a player last time he was in town—living up to his gossip rag reputation. He still was, and, like before, he was using his gift with words to push her buttons.

Even if he had changed his mind about relationships, and she didn’t think he really had, the nomadic lifestyle of living on the road was unsuitable for a baby. She didn’t want to raise Kendall on a perpetual tour, and with each album bigger than the last, Josh’s tours grew longer. His last one—yes, she’d kept an eye out—had lasted ten months and spanned five countries.

No. A relationship with Josh was out of the question. Her heart and libido were going to have to listen to her head this time. There would be no late-night trysts in his hotel room or secret rendezvous in a festival booth.

“I regret nothing that happened between us, Josh.” She held her ground when he took yet another step. He was now close enough that she had to tilt her head to look up to him. If she stretched her fingers out she’d touch him.

That also meant he was close enough to smell, and he smelled more delicious than fudge-filled chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Sweet and decadent, spicy and musky, he was more sinful than the calorie-filled cookies she loved to bake.

“But as amazing as being with you was, and I’ve never known better—” why had she just admitted that? “—I can’t pick up where we left off.”

“Then let’s pick up where we began.” He extended his hand and offered a smile. “I’m Josh Bryan. Nice to meet you.”

She glanced at his hand. A grin tugged at her mouth. She ached to give in, to take his hand and openly return his smile. Giving him a real smile would open the door to flirtations. The touch would awaken the never dormant desire to be wanted. Surrendering to his sway extended her emotional budget farther than she could afford.

Maybe cautiousness had been hardwired in when she and Carmen had been orphaned, split up and passed from home to home. They’d both landed in nice enough places each time, with nice enough people, but nice enough wasn’t enough when you weren’t with your only family.

She and Carmen hit the road as soon as they were both free from foster care. They’d run until Whispering Cove.

Life in Whispering Cove had changed things, but in the loneliness of her thoughts Aimee admitted she still wasn’t satisfied. She wanted a man who wanted to be with her as much as she wanted to be with him. Josh could’ve been that man, if he had a different lifestyle.

“Things are too different for me now.” She couldn’t forget the things they’d done. The way they felt or the way they’d altered her life. Her stomach knotted, and she suspected it had more to do with desire than the anxiety of rejecting a man no woman in her right mind would turn down.

Kendall crossed her mind, and with the thought of her daughter who waited upstairs to be fed, the tingling pressure of letdown passed through Aimee’s breasts. Blissful, the sensation wasn’t unlike the instant release of an orgasm. She pressed a hand to her chest and fought the instinct to close her eyes and sigh.

More pressing was the knowledge that she only had a few minutes before the nursing pads in her bra were soaked and she’d leak through her blouse. Unsexy and undeniable, she’d have to explain.

No. Forgetting all that they’d done was impossible.

He didn’t drop his hand when she didn’t accept it. He instead leaned forward and took hers. “We can’t start over. We can’t pick up. What can we do?”

“I wish I knew, Josh.”

CHAPTER TWO

Aimee didn’t give Josh a chance to say anything more before she turned and went upstairs. He would have followed, but the way she retreated advised him to give her space. Her knee length, Christmas green blouse and sparkling red skinny pants were the only cheerful things about her. Unless he considered the way she moved up the stairs.

She didn’t climb slowly or even do the kind of casual jog a lot of people did when they were as energetic as Aimee. No, casual was not a word that could be used to describe her departure as she skipped every two stairs with a hurried ease he wouldn’t have expected from someone with her short legs.

No, not even the way she headed upstairs was cheerful.

She might have to work twice as hard to cover the same distance in the same time as him, but when she wanted to get away she clearly had the motivation.

Why?

Had he said something wrong? She’d told him before that if he was ever in town to look her up. Well, he was in town.

He was working, desperately needing inspiration. Whispering Cove, with its snow, seaside-village welcome, and holiday festivities, had inspiration in spades. It was the perfect place to write a Christmas album—and rekindle the greatest fling of his life.

Except his fling seemed resistant.

Driven by the spicy scent that was distinctly Aimee, Josh was halfway up the stairs before he realized he’d moved. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was, and he’d tried each time they were together. He’d tried when they were apart, because it was one of the things about her that had never left him.

He’d come to Whispering Cove to write music. And see Aimee. Following the arousing aroma the rest of the way up the stairs seemed more productive toward the moment’s top goal.

At the landing that was really no more than a four-by-three rectangle of tiles, he faced the hardness of solid wood. Self-confidence had never been an issue for him, yet he grew more uncertain with every breath.

He enjoyed his freedom. Relationships didn’t belong on the road. Wives left home alone struggled with trust. He’d seen it too often. If jealousy wasn’t an issue it was often because money and the connection to fame mattered more than the man. They were all reasons he’d quoted to himself after walking away at the end of his Whispering Cove engagement over a year ago. He reminded himself of them each time he’d thought of calling Aimee, but each time it became more difficult to put the phone down without dialing.

He’d given in to the weakness early on. When she didn’t answer or call back—though he hadn’t left a message—he tried telling himself it had been for the best. Five months ago, the need to hear her voice, to hear she was okay, had grown.

Five months ago, when the strangest sensations had gripped him at the slightest thought of Aimee, he’d come closer and closer to calling. It made no sense that every thought of her had set off unexplained pains in his abdomen and lower back. Since the onset of those pains, thinking of her had set off similar, if slightly muted, pangs. With them came a tightness in his chest and swells of emotional tenderness that were completely unlike him.

The tightness had grown in intensity the closer he’d gotten to Whispering Cove, the closer he’d gotten to the pub. Standing before her, watching her press a hand over her heart, he swore he felt the echo of her touch on his own chest. Standing outside the door that blocked him from her, Josh again experienced a shift in his chest. This time it was a pleasurable release that flooded him with the tenderness he’d experienced on occasion.

Unlike before, the tenderness was magnified almost to the point of tears. Though it wasn’t simply tenderness. No. It was warmth and love. The kind of love that bound people for life. Unbreakable love.

It was the kind of love he only knew because he’d seen it in his parents’ faces. He’d witnessed it when his sisters and their husbands held his nieces and nephews.

It was the kind of love he only allowed himself to dream of, but never imagined finding. His lifestyle was everything a family oriented woman didn’t want. Aimee’s was everything he couldn’t have.

Josh shook his head and stepped back. Whatever he was feeling for Aimee he couldn’t give it the freedom to rule him, but yearning and necessity warred within.

Distancing himself from the warmth he wasn’t comfortable with, he retreated down the stairs. The sounds and scents of the pub beckoned, yet as much as he’d enjoy a cold brew and the companionship of Whispering Cove’s natives, he couldn’t risk seeing Aimee again so soon.

If he stayed for a drink, just as if he’d knocked on the door upstairs, he would fall victim to the power of his emotions and then lose control. Control had become all too important in a life where he was surrounded by addictive temptations.

“Leaving so soon?” Hauk asked from just inside the kitchen door as Josh turned toward the back exit.

“I have someplace to be.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”

Josh shook off the feeling that Hauk knew a secret and kept moving. Inspiration was suddenly striking life into every creative pore. The desire to see Aimee became the driving need to write some new lyrics. Nothing else mattered. He had something he wanted her to hear and he could always find the right words in a song. “Work to do.”

Creativity rode him all the way back to Byron and Ruth’s home. He’d told them he could stay in the hotel outside of town with his band, he preferred being with his band, but Byron had insisted on putting him up.

“A fella needs to enjoy a home-cooked meal once’n a while,” the old man had argued. “My Ruth would love to have a younger man to cook for.”

“What about Braydon?”

“He hides at home nights with his wife and baby. Downright unsociable that boy’s become.”

Josh knew the claim to be a lie, but he’d grown to care for Byron as deeply as he had his own granddads. Knowing he’d never see them again was all the motivation he’d needed to bite back his arguments. And a home-cooked meal at Christmas—if he wasn’t going to be home—sounded damn nice.

On the short drive from the pub to the Mitchells’, images of the town and Aimee and the townspeople circled in Josh’s mind. Everything about the place defined small-town America. It might even have been the inspiration for a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkaid picture or two if the men had ever seen the place.

Writing a Christmas album was one of his reasons for being in town, and Whispering Cove was a Christmas album.

Josh grabbed his bag and guitar case from the backseat of his rented Humvee and hustled up the steps of Byron’s home. He craved the feel of a pen between his fingers as lyrics flowed. He prayed Byron and Ruth would indulge his need for seclusion to write.

The door was yanked open seconds after he knocked. Byron’s face was set in a scowl even as he pulled Josh into the warmth of their living room. “Where’ve you been, boy?”

“I ran into some traffic on the way to the ferry. Then I stopped to check on the band.”

“And after that?” Byron challenged.

Josh wouldn’t lie to Byron and though he hadn’t thought the old guy had seen him he got a different impression now. “Hauk’s.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” Byron’s outburst drove Josh back a step. The man wasn’t known for subtleties, but neither was he the type to be surprised that a man might want a drink. “You were supposed to be a surprise at tomorrow’s concert. Now everyone’ll know you’re the special guest.”

“I only talked to Hauk and one of his waitresses.”

“People would have seen you. Which one?”

“Aimee. I’m sure she’ll be discreet. And no one seemed to recognize me.”

“Boy! You’re out to ruin my work.” Byron blustered as he headed to the phone, muttering about damage control and going blind.

Ruth, Byron’s wife, stepped in from the kitchen as he headed to the phone. She wiped her hands on the Mrs. Claus apron covering her slightly pudgy belly and slid her husband a look that said she was on to him—it was a look all mothers mastered—and Josh suddenly felt like he’d stepped in the middle of an inside joke he wasn’t privy to.

“He’s taking this surprise pretty seriously.”

“Yes.” Ruth cast a last glance at her husband before smiling warmly. “He’ll make you pay if he thinks the word’s out.”

“Maybe I should hide in my room here. I need to do some writing anyway.”

Ruth shook her head. “If you think that’s going to work on that old codger you’re more naive than all those tabloids would suggest.”

He resisted the instinct to roll his eyes. He hated the reputation the tabloids had built for him. It was way more glamorous than reality. “You mean he’s not going to let me hide in my room?”

“No, sweetie.” She angled her head toward the stairs, gesturing for him to follow. “As soon as he finishes his calls he’ll be dragging you downstairs where he’ll talk your ears off all night.”

“Would he be offended if I wrote while he talked? I don’t want to be rude, but when the mood strikes I hate to lose it.”

“And the mood struck. At Hauk’s.” Her indulgent eye-crinkling smile held wisdom so like his grandmother’s. It was probably that likeness that had him being honest without worrying about offending her.

“It did.”

Ruth led Josh into what had to have been Braydon’s room before he got married. Bright walls and masculine furniture with sailboat models lining the shelves welcomed Josh as much as the deck of a boat might. It was another layer of Whispering Cove’s charm—beyond the chill of winter awaited the welcoming warmth of days in the sun and sea.

“There’s always a pen and pad by the phone. Just tell Byron he’s inspiring you.”

“I think I’m going to love staying here.” Josh set his bag and guitar on the end of the bed and then kissed Ruth’s cheek. “Though you’re already making me want to call my grandmother so I can hear her voice.”

“Then call her.”

“In the morning. She’ll be asleep for the night.” They were in the same time zone for once, and it was only pushing nine, but one thing he knew about his grandmother was how much she loved being up to watch the sunrise. That meant she went to bed shortly after the sun. She and his granddad had done it every day of their married life. She’d never broken the habit after Granddad passed, saying he was still with her every morning.

“Are you close to your family?” Ruth slipped her hand in the crook of Josh’s arm and led him back downstairs.

“Very. I’d be with them right now if your husband wasn’t so persuasive.” Christmas was the one time each year he’d never skipped being with his family. He’d hated telling them he wouldn’t be home this year, but as he’d known they would, they’d supported him and promised they would see him in the new year.

“Oh, Josh. You spent almost all year on tour. Why would you let Byron pull you from your family at Christmas?”

“I feel as at home here as I do with my family. They’re the only two places I can walk down the street and not feel the need to hide my identity.” He shrugged. Ruth reminded him of his grandmother, but that didn’t mean he was ready to tell her Aimee was the biggest appeal in Whispering Cove. He wasn’t ready to tell anyone that. “Everyone greets me by name with a sincerity I don’t find very often.”

“I guess when you’re as popular as you are people would always be looking to get something from you.”

“Most.”

“And yet you allowed it from my husband?”

“Telling him no…” Uncertain of how to tell her how much the friends he’d found, including Byron, had come to mean to him, Josh settled on shaking his head. “I just didn’t have it in me.”

Ruth released a laugh that held humor, insight and warning all at once as they stepped into the living room. “Don’t let Byron hear you say that.”

“Don’t let Byron hear him say what?” Byron asked as he hung up the phone.

She’d spoken quietly enough that Josh would have sworn no one else would’ve heard. He should have known Byron would be sharper than that. “Oh, I was just telling Ruth how much you two remind me of my own grandparents, and how much I’m going to enjoy spending time with you.”

“Pfft.” Byron snorted. “You’re a poor liar, but I’ll let it pass since I was able to minimize the damage you did with your visit to the bar. Good thing Hauk had the lights down low and you haven’t shaved in a while. Now come sit and tell me what’s been happening on your tour.”

“Sit.” Ruth pointed to the chair by the phone and winked. “I’ll get you a drink. I believe you had a preference for Coors Light?”

“That would be great. Thank you.”

Settling in for a long visit, Josh’s gaze landed on the pen and pad by the phone. His fingers tingled with the desire to hug the pen. Lyrics moved over and through each other in a jumble as his mind sorted through them. Unwritten, accompanying notes played in the background as a ballad he’d never have expected to write came to life.

He would visit with Ruth and Byron, jot the lyrics down, and when they went to bed he would refine the song until it was perfect.

Byron wanted to surprise people at tomorrow’s concert. Josh wanted to surprise Aimee. Maybe they could both win.

 

 

Kendall’s cry rousted Aimee from her thoughts as she walked along the snow-covered, cobbled streets in the town square. Twinkle lights danced along window edges and holiday scenes from funny to touching had been painted within each lighted frame. Aimee’s favorite window, the only one not decorated, was the corner window of Sky’s glass shop. The glass displays with all their vibrant and muted colors were more than enough to bring the space to life. Even with the snow that promised to get much worse before Christmas morning, the place was perfection.

Like everyone else moving toward the square for the concert, Aimee and Kendall were bundled so heavily the cold only managed to touch their noses. It wasn’t the cold that had Kendall fussing, though. Hunger, sleep or a diaper in need of changing weren’t the culprits either.

It was simply stress that had Kendall wound up. All day, growing worse as the concert grew closer, Aimee’s anxiety had amped higher, and with it, Kendall’s fussiness increased until they were both so frazzled there was no calming either of them.

Aimee had considered leaving early enough to get a front row seat for the concert, especially after Josh had told her he was performing. Kendall seemed to prefer Josh’s songs to traditional lullabies when Aimee sang to her, so there was a chance hearing him sing would soothe Kendall.

Singing Josh’s songs in the privacy of their apartment allowed Aimee to be honest about Kendall’s father. Their fling had been one of the rare secrets kept in Whispering Cove and while she didn’t like secrets she wasn’t ready to reveal everything with the entire town out to bear witness. That cowardice—and not wanting Josh to see the truth about Kendall while onstage—was what had made her delay her arrival at the concert. It was why she shook her head in refusal when Dani waved from the front row.

Instead of standing front and center where she could easily see Josh’s face and watch the joy come to life that he found singing, she moved to the outskirts of the crowd in the back. If anyone questioned her she would simply say she wanted to use the building as a wind block to keep Kendall warm. There were heaters spread around, but bodies of friends weren’t enough to block the wind she was avoiding. And only she knew she was afraid of the frigid chill that would settle on Josh’s face when he saw her cradling a baby. His baby.

As she neared the gazebo slash stage Hauk had built for the Fall Festival two falls ago, the same stage Josh had performed on when they first met, the sounds and smells of Christmas outdoors grew stronger.

Carols played through the speakers that had been set up, but the gathering crowd was growing restless for the guest singer. Chestnuts roasted in the open pit the firemen from Trent’s station oversaw, hot cocoa and cider were being served by the women from the local coffee shop, and the giant tree that had been officially lit the night before emitted a pleasantly strong pine scent.

It had been in a crowd similar to tonight’s when she’d met Josh. Booths had lined the square and the townspeople had talked and laughed then as they did now. She was working backstage, helping Vic make sure things were perfect for their headliner, when she’d gone to knock on the bus door to say they were ready.

Josh had opened the door himself. Toned muscles showcased by the unbuttoned shirt wet at the collar from a recent shower had been as tempting as his appealing smile. His looks had weakened her, but his charming invitation to come in and wait and then the way he’d joked with her and called her Aims instead of Aimee like he’d known her forever had been her undoing.

She’d wanted to believe she was different even when the wanting defied logic. He’d no doubt used the same approach with every woman he invited into his bed, but she had allowed herself to pretend.

Kendall’s fusses turned into full-blown cries that demanded Aimee’s attention return to the present. She’d decided to see Josh after the show, to tell him everything he didn’t know. If there was a chance for them to have any kind of relationship, even one for Kendall, then she had to be up front with him.

Varied scenarios had played on a loop all day in her mind. He’d walk away and never look back. He’d fight her for custody and, considering his money, he’d win. He’d accuse her of playing a horrible trick and hate her.

A glimmer of hope existed that he’d hear her out despite any hurt or anger she’d caused. It was a miniscule glimmer easily overshadowed by doubts and insecurities and certainty that the karma gods would decide to punish her for anything she’d ever done wrong.

“You talk to him today?” Carmen stepped up and rubbed a gloved hand over Kendall’s cheek.

“No.” Aimee swayed side to side as she watched the stage for any sign of Josh. “How do you tell a man with his lifestyle about the daughter he doesn’t know about?”

Carmen smiled her best pep talk smile. Unlike other times, even her sister’s best chat wouldn’t brighten Aimee’s dark mood. Even the strongest encouragements held no power against fear and Aimee was not in the mood to be cheered.

“How about ‘This is Kendall. She’s yours.’ Assuming you don’t want to go with ‘Hey, Josh. You remember when we knocked guitars? You knocked me up.’”

Byron saved Aimee from responding when he leapt onto the stage with the spryness he often hid for the sake of one scheme or another. It was part of his charm that made her wish he could have been her granddad, or that she could even have known hers.

With the exception of a middle spotlight that stayed on Byron, all the lights on and around the stage went out until the only light came from the dull glow of the heat lamps. There was a shuffling behind Byron, but he pulled all attention to him when he began speaking in a strong and booming tone that almost didn’t need a microphone’s magnification.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard the rumors about who our surprise guest might be.”

With her eyes adjusting to the darkness, Aimee could see the band moving into position. Josh, moving with his confident stride, walked to the middle of the stage.

“Toby Keith!”

“Nickelback!”

“Michael Bublé!”

“Neil Diamond!”

“Rascal Flatts!”

“One Direction!”

The warring shouts from the teens and the elderly alike rose and collided in the frigid air and the smile on Byron’s face grew bigger. As the man in charge of booking the headliner, and schemer of epic proportions, he’d spent the last several months answering every inquiry with a different artist. Knowing he’d fooled everyone, most everyone, no doubt satisfied his heart as much as a tumbler of rum satisfied his thirst.

“No. No. No. No. No. And thank the stars no!” Byron laughed as he taunted the crowd more and told his fellow schemers Errol and Harold they owed him a bottle of rum.

“No stranger to the stage or tabloids, this man says he enjoys the quiet pace of Whispering Cove. He says there’s a magic in walking our streets after everyone’s gone to bed, just as there’s a kinship in the way we look out for each other.” The old man sounded for all the cove like he was reading an online dating profile, not that he would approve of a town young’n, as he called them, thinking they could find love over a computer.

Quiet strumming from a single, acoustic guitar moved across the stage from behind Byron. Aimee knew every chord of every song Josh played. This wasn’t any of them.

“Put your hands together and welcome a friend to the stage.” Byron skipped naming Josh and instead began the round of clapping as he moved off stage.

The lights stayed off with the glow of the moonlight showing the outline of a man sitting alone on a stool. An adoring and eager crowd shown in brilliant colors before the dark stage. Aimee swallowed as the image imprinted itself on her mind and the impression of loneliness stamped itself on her heart.

Was the loneliness his or hers?

CHAPTER THREE

Josh had never felt more on display than he did in the darkness of the stage as he sat on a stool. His guitar had been a sort of security blanket for years, yet knowing Aimee was somewhere in the crowd facing him, knowing she would hear his words and know they were for her, stripped away all security. At least he hoped she knew they were for her.

His band was behind him, ready to follow his lead. He didn’t give them any thought though as he scanned the faces he could see, hoping to find the woman whose Irish green gaze had haunted his dreams.

“Nights of passion and days of laughs

Came so easily, but quickly passed.

To learn your secrets I can tell you mine.

I remember your kiss, it is finer than wine.

You began as a fling, your touch gave me wings.

I could do anything, but I bade you good-bye.

I yearn for your hi,

I couldn’t stay,

There’d have been no way,

So I left you behind,

Yet you stayed in my mind.

You stay in my mind.”

Josh didn’t typically write ballads. The slower notes always felt stilted. Until now. He searched the faces he could see, but didn’t spot the woman he craved.

” Mistakes, mistakes reveal truth.

Truth I can’t see through.

I’d rather ignore.”

His band came in, settling into the music as if they’d played the song a hundred times. He couldn’t avoid the truth of his lyrics.

“Reminds me of pleasures that I can’t forget.

They’re stuck in my head, but I feel no more.

Life shrouds me, your scent still surrounds me, you’re constant company,

Stuck in a lonely embrace

Only your smile has the power to erase.

I couldn’t stay,

There’d have been no way,

So I left you behind,

Yet you stayed in my mind.

You stay in my mind.”

And he couldn’t stop hoping that putting his feelings on display would somehow change Aimee’s mind about them, because he wanted, no he needed, to know her better. It was something that was quickly growing into a compulsion bigger than his need to write new music. And he had to write new music because as much as he wouldn’t mind less time on the road he couldn’t allow himself to stop moving forward in his career.

“Our festival fling

Should’ve been a passing thing.

Should’ve left you behind,

But you live in my mind.”

Hauk, who sat at the lighting control panel with his wife and daughter, eased the spotlight closer to Josh. The anonymity of darkness’s shroud began to vanish. He scanned the crowd quickly. Aimee was there somewhere. She had to be listening.

“’Tis the season for home, its whispers of welcome I’m pining for.

Home as mile after mile passes by.

’Tis the season for family, its whispers of love, I need that love.

As I regret my good-bye,

I regret good-bye.

Even last night as the lyrics had flooded his mind he hadn’t planned on singing them at the concert. It was too soon to lay all his cards on the table, and if Aimee were paying any attention she would know that’s what he was doing. Now, just as she had then, Aimee Smith, with the less-than-perfect past, intrigued him.

“I couldn’t stay,

There’d have been no way.

I couldn’t stay.

’Tis the season to dream

In a Christmas serenade.

Say I can stay,

And that we’ll find a way.

Just tell me you want me to stay.”

As his finger hovered over the last string and the note faded, Hauk raised the lights fully. The crowd erupted into applause and yells. The face he’d hoped to find, the smile he’d hoped to win, was nowhere to be seen. If she’d missed the concert, or skipped it as a way of avoiding him, or if he’d scared her off…

“Well!” Kellan, his lead guitarist and best friend, slapped him on the shoulder and spoke excitedly into his mic. “What do you think, Whispering Cove? Would you let him stay if he asked you so sweetly?”

“Yes!”

“Or would you make him prove himself? Maybe with more songs? Something to get you moving so you don’t freeze out here!”

“Sing!”

“Stay with me!”

Josh stood and moved the stool aside. Recovering the stage persona he’d momentarily set aside, he took off his guitar and handed it to Kellan with a thank you only his friend heard. He still wanted to see Aimee over anything else, but he’d committed to giving the citizens of Whispering Cove a show. If entire families, down to the tiniest baby, could bundle up and brave the cold, he could postpone another plea for passion.

Knowing how cold it had been in the evenings in the fall, Josh had only been willing to give Byron an hour for an outside concert in December. In that hour they played some favorite Christmas songs as well as a few of their hits. He grabbed a few people up front and invited them to join him. That didn’t always sound great, but the crowd loved it.

It was something Kellan had talked him into doing during every concert. When he wasn’t on stage he preferred his privacy, but the desire to make people happy, a necessity that played into his success, streamed through his blood as fluidly as notes danced along a music staff.

Unlike his much longer shows that fed him with fun, Josh only wanted this one to be over so he could do something to make himself happy. At the moment, that something was to stop hiding in Byron and Ruth’s home. To take walks through Whispering Cove, find inspiration for new songs. To see Aimee.

They were wrapping up the last song when the crowd moved together at just the right angle for him to see two women leaning against a building at the back of the crowd. Not any two women. Aimee and her sister, Carmen. Aimee should have been easy to spot in the vibrant teal coat and purple hat and scarf. Even bundled for warmth, her love of color showed. In Aimee’s arms as she swayed to the rhythm of his music, was a well-bundled baby.

His stomach knotted. Was the baby hers? Was that why she’d said they couldn’t pick up where they left off?

The moon and area lights glinted off Aimee’s sparkling eyes. The briefest moment passed when he thought she looked at him. Met and held his gaze. He stared back because if she was really looking at him so closely he wasn’t going to be the one to break the moment.

Carmen broke it for them both when she stepped closer to Aimee and rested a hand on the baby’s back. The sisters talked among themselves. Aimee glanced at the stage, shook her head and then looked back to Carmen. He thanked the crowd, never taking his eyes off the spot where Aimee swayed to calm the infant.

“Kell.” Josh moved to the edge of the stage with his pal. They had been together since the beginning of their dues-paying years. The number of records they sold made no difference when it came to setting up and taking down their equipment. The band was a team, a family, and they worked together as one until all the work was done. “I need to go talk to someone. Can you cover for me here?”

“We’ve got this.”

“Thanks.”

“This person you need to talk to is Aimee, isn’t it? She’s why we’re doing Christmas in Whispering Cove? She’s why you haven’t been happy.”

“I’ve been happy.”

“Except when you’re alone.”

Lying to Kellan when he’d helped convince the band to give up their time off to be with him didn’t sit well with Josh, but he’d just done it without thinking. He wouldn’t tell Kell everything, but given his momentary seriousness, Josh wouldn’t lie again. “She’s been on my mind since we left here the last time. Something about her stayed with me, and I have to figure out why.”

“The song?”

“Started as just a song.”

“Josh.” Kell employed a tone that could have put Ward Cleaver to shame when he was calling the Beav out on something. Oddly, though they were the same age and had known each other forever, the tone worked.

“Yes. Okay. She’s part of it.”

“Most all of it I’m thinking, because you never write lyrics like that. In fact, I’ve watched you turn away some great stuff along the same lines.”

“I never felt a connection to them.”

Kell smiled with the arrogance that said he knew all too well why Aimee had stayed with Josh. It awakened an unsettling thought. An unavoidable one. Kell jerked his head toward the dispersing crowd. “Go. Make your plea. Get your tune-up.”

As easily as that his friend had settled back into his joking self. “How does that attitude help you get any?”

“Women expect it from us stars.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to give it to them.”

Kell grinned the slow and borderline-lecherous smile he used to get women to drop their panties. “They expect that too.”

Josh laughed, knowing Kell was right about the women who followed them around. More often than not they were looking for a claim to fame at a band member or singer’s expense. Kell just gave them what they wanted. So had Josh for too long.

“Good luck.”

“Good luck?” Josh asked.

“With Aimee.” Kell didn’t joke or force truths. He simply offered quiet support.

Josh shook his head as he headed down the stairs. Rounding the table where Hauk, Vic and Sophie were helping unhook and roll up wires, Josh considered not stopping. His mother would fillet him with her dullest blade if she caught him leaving others to do his work without proper acknowledgement.

“Hey, guys. Thanks for helping tonight.”

“Are you kidding? Getting you here for that festival is what got us together.” Vic grinned a brilliant smile.

Hauk simply shrugged. “You could say we owe you.”

“Friends should never owe each other. Let’s call it even.” Josh squeezed Sophie’s shoulder gently. He’d immediately fallen for the girl during his first trip. “And I want to take you all to dinner before I leave town.”

“Sure thing.” Hauk nodded toward the spot Aimee had been standing in. “If you’re looking to warm up tonight though you may want to try the pub.” He leaned in and spoke quietly. “The apartment upstairs might be more comfortable than your bus. And it won’t have listening ears on the other side of the walls like Byron’s.”

“Thanks, man.”

It took another thirty minutes to get through the lingering crowd. Apparently the people of Whispering Cove didn’t care about a little thing like below-zero temps and impending snowfalls.

Taking Hauk’s advice, he headed to the bar. Instead of going through the front, though, he circled to the back and went in through the kitchen. He liked people, most of the time. Tonight he only wanted to see one.

He was nearing the top step to the apartment door above Hauk’s when it opened. “Goodnight, Aimee.”

Carmen met Josh’s gaze and nodded. She left the door open as she moved toward the stairs. She stopped on the step above him and stared straight into his eyes. “Why now, Josh?”

“Her.”

Carmen laid a hand on his shoulder and tapped her index finger as if she was thinking. “She’s got more to lose than before. Don’t hurt her.”

He hadn’t been warned about hurting a woman since high school, but Carmen’s last three words before leaving him standing alone smacked him back to those days. With the reversion his nerves bounded back like they had each time he’d knocked on a date’s door for the first time. Unlike all those times, something told him he was about to face a defining moment.

The living space was larger than he’d expected, and more modern. Cream-colored walls, mahogany furniture with teal and deep purple accents gave the place a bright and welcoming feeling. A tree, large and sparsely decorated with white ornaments, stood in one corner. A few gifts wrapped in purple foil paper spoke of love and home.

Aimee’s touch brought the place to life. On the table beside the sofa was a framed picture of a dark-haired baby girl holding a guitar-shaped rattle.

Josh’s stomach contracted. Had Aimee been holding her child? Was that what she’d meant when she said she wasn’t the same? And what Carmen had meant by Aimee having more to lose?

Chills skidded down his spine as warmth whirled through the room a second before Aimee stepped in from the hallway and stumbled to a halt.

“Josh.”

“Aims.” She’d shed the heavy warm wear she’d sported and now only wore a robe over lime green pajama pants and a corresponding tank top. It was tough to tell with the flowing blouse and bulk of winter clothes he’d seen her in, but her curves seemed to be more substantial than before. The difference was subtle, but he’d seen the same changes before.

“What took you so long?”

“An inherent inability to tell people to shove off. How’d you know I would come here?”

“An inherent inability to forget your stubborn streak.”

“Hauk suggested I would find some quiet here. I’m good at math.”

She snorted the tiny snort that would precede an all out laugh if something struck her funny enough. “Quiet is harder to come by around here than people might think.”

“It’s quiet now.” Unless she told him to leave he was staying. Capturing her gaze with his, the way they had at the concert, he closed the distance separating them. The muscles at the side of her throat throbbed as she swallowed, but she didn’t back down.

She didn’t act shy or hesitant. She met his eyes directly and there was no sign of insecurity when she spoke. She’d changed, morphed into a more confident woman. Damn if it didn’t make her sexier.

“If there’s such a thing as good luck, it will stay this way all night.” She checked her watch and smiled. “My money says I have two hours at most.”

“It was good luck that had you knocking on my trailer door all those months ago.” Narrowing his eyes, he stepped farther into the room and closed the door behind him. “And as I recall, things stay pretty quiet around here after dark. What’s changed?”

She opened and then closed her mouth as if she had something to say but decided against it. It was another change in her. Granted he hadn’t known her long, but it didn’t take long to know if a person was prone to speaking their mind or keeping their thoughts to themselves. She was the speaking up kind. Or she had been.

“Everything.” She motioned to the sofa. “Do you want to sit?”

Not really. “Sure.”

“We need to talk.”

Josh paused in the act of pulling his coat off and looked toward Aimee. Poised for something he couldn’t put his finger on, she stood motionless with her hands now dangling by her sides. “That sounds ominous.”

“Guess it depends on your viewpoint.”

His gaze landed on the baby picture. His stomach knotted again only this time it didn’t release. It was her baby, he could tell by the curve of her cheekbone and the arch of her brow. The upper heart shape to her mouth.

He looked back to Aimee who pointed toward the couch.

Encouragement to stay came from the reminder that she hadn’t asked him to leave and she didn’t look as though the idea of spending time with him bothered her. Curiosity was the biggest encouragement, though.

After setting his coat, gloves, hat and scarf on the chair, Josh moved to the sofa. He didn’t sit all the way at one end, but neither did he sit in the middle.

It was a small living room with little furniture—most of the space was taken up by the kitchen and dining area—so his stuff on the chair meant she would have to join him on the couch. Or move his stuff. Either way he would have an idea of how she felt about him.

Aimee sat on the sofa almost halfway between him and the opposite end. He could touch her with a small stretch, but she was otherwise just out of reach.

“You’re different, Aims.”

“I told you everything has changed. Me, my life.”

“Did you get married?”

“No.”

“Engaged?” He rarely pursued single mothers, would never pursue a married woman, and had a general rule to avoid the complication of an engaged one. For Aimee, he’d break some rules.

“No.”

“Good.” Relief buoyed his hopes. Happiness hurried his pulse.

“That doesn’t make this simple.”

“Does that mean there’s a this?” He waved the first two fingers of his right hand between them. “An us?”

“Josh.”

Rather than give her a chance to make more arguments, he swiftly closed the distance between them and pressed his mouth to hers. Desperation born of too long without a woman fueled his need to taste her. Unwillingness to push her too far kept him from touching her or pressing his body to hers.

Holding himself off her with his hands braced on either side of her on the sofa, he kept the kiss light, easy and flirtatious. It was everything their time together had been, but beneath the past’s flavor was a note of anticipated tension.

Aimee’s fingers curled into the knit of his sweater so the tips of her nails scraped along the sensitive flesh of his sides. Her tongue teased his and she released a tiny moan. Her moans were as easily read as sheet music. This one, the one that came early on in a kiss, said only moments existed before she grabbed him and pulled him closer.

Aimee’s claim that things were more complicated ceased to exist with her lips moving beneath his and her fingers rubbing against his waist. She arched her back, molding herself more fully to him, and the idea of restraint became a concept he wasn’t interested in indulging.

His life was on the road. Hers was in Whispering Cove. He romanced the idea of staying, but the crowds on the road fed a part of his soul he couldn’t afford to let starve. A piece of him had stayed behind with Aimee, a piece he’d missed more and more. He wanted to give her more than another fling, he just wasn’t sure he could.

“Josh.” She sank away, gasping. “We can’t do this. It’s not right.”

“It felt right a second ago.” Poised over her, his biceps and shoulders burning with the force of holding himself off her, he searched the depths of her gaze. Arousal darkened the green of her eyes, but concern and worry clouded them.

“Yeah.” Pleasure curled her lips into the tiniest hint of a smile. It did nothing to change the look in her eyes.

She wanted to talk. He was going to have to indulge her. “What do we need to talk about?”

“About… Something’s happened since the last time we were together.”

That statement sounded more ominous than we need to talk. Releasing a breath, he eased back and promised himself he could handle whatever weighed so heavily on her mind. Somehow he knew it ran deeper than announcing she had a kid.

CHAPTER FOUR

Aimee struggled against the instinct to put more space between them. She’d never liked the idea of telling Josh about Kendall over the phone, but suddenly she wondered if it would have been easier. She wouldn’t have been able to see the judgment cross his face. She wouldn’t have been in the same room when he accused her of being like every other woman who tried to trap him into a relationship with lies of a baby.

She could start with telling him what efforts she’d made in contacting him. They’d seemed like enough at the time. In the moment of truth nothing she’d done was enough. She shouldn’t have stopped trying until she’d spoken with him, told him.

It was too late to change what she had or hadn’t done. The best she could offer was upfront honesty.

“I have a daughter.”

His gaze flicked to the picture. “She’s cute.”

“You have a daughter.” Aimee put the slightest stress on “you”. Rehearsing how this would go hadn’t been enough.

He straightened and sat slightly back. Leeriness crept into his watchful eyes as he studied the picture of Kendall. “What?”

“We have a daughter. She’s five months old.” Now that she’d begun, the impulse to spill every detailed thought and feeling from the last fourteen months rushed through her veins. He didn’t need to know about her feelings, though. He needed time to process his own.

“How? We used protection. I always use protection.”

“And I was on the pill. Some would argue she was just meant to be.” It sounded so lame spoken. Maybe it was because he hadn’t moved. He hadn’t blinked or jerked or flinched. He hadn’t leapt off the couch with accusations flying. His chest barely moved with the motion of his breaths.

His stillness was more worrisome than any outburst.

“Carmen carried her upstairs last night. You were holding her at the concert. I almost thought she was Carmen’s.”

Aimee nodded, but kept the conversation focused on Kendall. “She loves your music. Your voice.”

“She tell you that?”

“Sort of.” Aimee smiled. “Lullabies are wasted on her. Only your songs soothe her.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Last night? Before?”

“I wanted to tell you last night, but she was waiting to eat and I wanted us to have more privacy than the bar’s kitchen.”

“So why not before? You had my number. You could have called.” He still hadn’t moved. Even his voice was perfectly modulated with a chilly calm. He was a passionate man. She would have laid big odds that he’d pace, curse, fling harsh words.

“I called. I left messages. I even went to a concert and tried to get backstage to see you.” She shrugged, keeping the justifications for not trying harder to herself. “I remembered what you said about women trying to trap you, so I told myself when you didn’t call back and when I wasn’t allowed to see you—”

“That I would think the same about you.”

She shrugged again. There were no words to make the situation okay, so she wouldn’t try. “Would you like to see her?”

That got him to move—if a jagged inhale and no exhale could be considered moving. Then his right index finger began tapping his knee. The second moved in, picking up an alternating rhythm. His middle finger followed and then his pinky until he was steadily drumming his knee. He stared at the picture.

The silence droned with certainty that when he did speak it would be to say he had no interest in seeing their daughter. That he didn’t even believe Kendall was his.

Aimee had told herself she could handle his rejection, but suddenly she wasn’t sure she could. Then she thought again that he might not reject Kendall. He might decide he wanted her. Wanted her so much he would fight for custody.

The thought of losing her baby shafted through her heart. It was an agony she had to find a way to avoid. Desperation tumbled from every word she spoke.

“She’s sleeping, but I can wake her up for you if you want.”

Fear-fed anxiety had her vowing to be flexible and open with anything he wanted. Self-preservation had her wondering if she should speak to Andie. Her friend didn’t normally practice family law, but she’d have some ideas on Aimee’s chances of winning a custody battle.

He had more money, but she had a permanent address. He could buy the best nannies, but she had a support system that included close friends, family and other kids. Damn. She didn’t want it to come to a court battle.

“No.” The single syllable slapped harshly. He immediately nodded and lightened the sting with a softer, “Don’t wake her. I would like to see her, though.”

Aimee nodded and led the way to Kendall’s room. Each step required more energy to put one foot in front of the other. Her muscles grew heavier with dread the closer they got to Kendall’s room.

In the room, Aimee turned on the guitar-shaped lamp that sported a pick-shaped shade. The soft glow of a light showed off the non-traditional decorations she’d chosen for their daughter’s room. Instead of teddy bears or ducks she’d stenciled musical instruments and notes on the walls. The mobile dancing over the crib held guitars and picks that matched the lamp. The bedding was the cover art from Josh’s favorite album.

Josh looked around. His throat bobbed in a swallow, but he said nothing. Not knowing what he was thinking had the heaviness in her legs spreading. With it came a pressing need to fill the silence.

“I wanted her to know you.”

He nodded once and moved to the side of the crib. The instinct to protect her daughter reared. Clasping her hands in front of her, Aimee forced herself to stand back.

“She has your eyes. They were dark blue when she was born, but they’ve darkened.”

Minutes passed in aching slowness as he studied their daughter without making a move to touch the crib or Kendall. And still he didn’t give a voice to any of the thoughts in his head.

“I haven’t been with anyone since you.”

Aimee’s increasing anxiety bubbled in her stomach, but unlike butterflies it felt more like Edward Scissorhands had been set loose. Each bubble was being popped with sharp accuracy that turned into a shredding lance.

“We can do a paternity test if you want.”

She’d told him when he was there he’d only been her second lover, and the first one had been before she and Carmen aged out of foster care. He couldn’t even be counted as a lover, so there’d really only ever been Josh.

“I named her Kendall.”

He flinched so violently that it propelled him back a step. Still he said nothing, which had the need to fill the silence growing. Maybe I’ve been regretting that.

His words from the night before drifted back. She had little doubt his only regret now was having met her in the first place.

“I’m not asking for anything. If you don’t want to be involved I understand.” She wouldn’t like it, she hoped he wanted to know Kendall, hoped he was better than her parents had been, but she would understand if he couldn’t be.

Shaking his head, Josh turned and walked out of Kendall’s room. He didn’t touch the crib or look at Aimee as he passed. He kept every damn thought and emotion bottled so tightly she worried what—who—would be broken when the cork was released.

Alone with Kendall, Aimee stepped to the crib and rubbed her fingertips over her daughter’s forehead. “We’ll be okay, baby. You won’t grow up without a parent who loves you.”

After turning out the light, Aimee stepped into the hall. Josh stood there. Surprise gripped her in a chilly fist.

Refusing to break, determined to stand strong for her daughter, Aimee met his gaze. The naked vulnerability shining in the dark depths smacked her.

Not anger. Not hurt. Not betrayal. Pure passion pulsed in his eyes and it made no sense. “Josh?”

He shook his head, a single jerky shake, and then closed the distance between them.

Her heart detonated. Pressure built until her ribs ached.

He gripped her hips and backed her against the wall. His mouth came down on hers in a kiss that was more forceful than the last. Forceful in that it tasted like years of pent-up frustrations that had popped free of their seal.

She gasped. He took advantage of the weakness and plunged his tongue into her mouth. Hunger and doubt, hope and desire warred in her heart. Passion overtook her body and had her clinging to Josh, answering his kiss with equal fervor.

A guttural groan rumbled from deep in his chest. He moved his hands from her hips to her waist and up her sides until they cupped her breasts. Arousal flooded her stomach. Wetness flooded her panties. She answered his groan with one of her own.

She’d always been sensitive to Josh’s touch, but nursing had made her more so. He could take her over the edge and to orgasm without removing her clothes. As much as she welcomed the release, the escape his touch offered, she couldn’t ignore the circumstances.

Steeling her resolve, she broke the kiss. “We have to talk about this. About Kendall.”

“Oh, we will.” He turned her toward the bedroom with his hands continually exploring her body. “First I think we need to make love.”

“Josh…”

“Tell me you don’t want me, that you don’t crave the pleasure we find together. Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want to be touched by me. That you don’t want to let go of everything for just a little while.” His stare dared her even more than his words. “Say it and we’ll sit on the couch and talk.”

“I want to say it, because we need to talk.”

“But you can’t.” His dangerous smile appeared, weakened her resolve to talk. She shook her head.

“Then let’s see if we’re still as good as we remember.”

His playfulness was infectious. Or it could simply be the desire to postpone a potentially ugly confrontation. If he wanted to have sex instead of talk then fine. She’d been honest, leaving him no reason to think she was trying to trap him.

He backed her into the room and to her bed, but he didn’t lay her down. Treating her to continuous kisses, gentle brushes of his lips against hers or her neck, he reminded her with every touch why she’d fallen prey to him. A flick of his thumbs stiffened her nipples as he moved his hands and pushed her robe off her shoulders.

“You have the softest skin.” His murmur blended with the warmth of his breath as he sank his teeth tenderly into her shoulder. Molding her body to his, pressing his erection against her for the briefest moment, he moved his hands to the hem of her tank top without ever breaking his touch.

His palms glided along her stomach and over her ribcage as he raised her tank. “You’re curvier than before. More sensual, though I wouldn’t have thought it possible.”

“A side effect of pregnancy.”

“It suits you.” Josh pulled her tank over her head and tossed it aside.

His eyes glimmered as he lowered his head for another kiss. She expected the caress on her lips. He ducked his head at the last second and kissed the tender skin beneath her jaw. She dropped her head and moaned. Her thong grew wetter as her sensitized body moved into hyper drive beneath his touches.

Growing hungrier, Aimee grabbed the edge of his sweater and tugged it over his head. She’d dreamed of touching him, making love with him. Having him in her bedroom, gifting her with his touch after learning about Kendall, was a bigger turn on than anything she’d dreamed.

You suit me.

Josh dropped to his knees and pressed his mouth to her stomach, to the slight bulge she hadn’t been able to lose after Kendall. His fingers dug into her hips and pulled her closer.

The image of him kissing her that way when she carried his child snapped into her mind and flooded her with a depth of feeling she’d never expected. Her hands dropped to his shoulders, seeking support as if she were drunk. She bit her lips to keep from crying out and dragging him onto the bed for a hurried round of sex.

He was clearly content not to rush. Who was she to argue?

“If I’d gotten your messages I would have been here.” He eased back and looked up. “You sure as hell wouldn’t have been alone.”

His earnestness wrapped around her heart like a fist. Her veins pulsed and her breath stalled beneath the grip of his words.

“I had Carmen and friends.” Guilt flashed in his eyes. The need to soothe flared, so she brushed her fingers over his forehead, like she often did with Kendall. “You’re here now.”

 

Josh lost himself in the warmth of Aimee’s touch. If she remembered their talks from before she was likely worried he would accuse her of trapping him. She could be worried he’d try to take Kendall away or abandon them both like her own parents had.

Fear should be overwhelming her, but she was instead giving him the kindness of comfort.

For a man who made his living by stringing the perfect words together, none were coming to him. He was enraged to just now be learning about Kendall, but the blame wasn’t to be laid at Aimee’s feet. He’d have to find a way to show her he didn’t judge her. He would have been at her side if he’d known, and he wasn’t running now.

Tears clogged his throat. Before they overtook his eyes and showed his underbelly, he broke Aimee’s gaze and returned to his exploration of her body. Nibbling a path along the waist of her pajama pants, he loosened the tie and tugged. The flannel pants joined her robe in a pool at her ankles. All she was left wearing was a nursing bra, silk thong and Christmas-red painted toenails with silver stockings dancing on her big toenails.

Practical, sensual and funny. It was the perfect combination for the honest woman most people saw as a free spirit. She didn’t play games; even when she’d had the right to push for more she hadn’t.

Josh brushed an index finger over each of her big toes and smiled. “No clichéd snowman for you.”

She wiggled her toes, teasing him with memories of her ankles locked behind his head. He was smiling at the memory as he bent down and kissed her toes. “I never thought toes could be sexy until meeting you.”

She twitched as if he’d tickled her, which only made him smile more. With his bottom lip pinched beneath his teeth to keep from laughing, he rubbed his nose up the front of her leg while tracing his fingers, just the briefest touch of the tips, up the backs.

She giggled, trying to escape his tickling without actually moving away. Responsiveness was never a problem with Aimee. She was as outspoken with her body language as she was with words during conversation. Rarely had he questioned what she was feeling.

Her fingers slipped through his hair when he was high enough. Light tugs turned into radiating pulses of awareness. Each follicle throbbed. Every nerve sang.

His cock twitched against his zipper, seeking freedom he wasn’t ready or willing to grant. Well, he was ready. And willing. He’d been ready and willing since kissing her in the living room.

This lovemaking needed to be more meaningful than a hurried rush to roll on a condom and find release. It needed to be more emotional than the lighthearted explorations of each other’s bodies.

They stood at a precipice. A moment in time when everything could change and how they reacted to each other would determine if it was for better or worse.

“Josh.” Aimee dragged his name out with the grumbling roll of hunger. “It’s been a really long time. If you keep tickling me… Ahhhh.”

“Go ahead, Aimee.” Loving the power he had over her body, he blew a long, unsteady breath along the tender skin of her pelvic bone. Then he followed the same path with his fingers. “Let yourself go.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.” Turning herself over to orgasm without him being in her was the one thing he’d never talked her into. She’d said once it was too personal. He’d known the truth. For her, orgasming from a lover’s touch or kiss required a level of trust she wasn’t ready to give.

Tonight, though, she was on the edge. Her body quivered. Her skin pimpled with gooseflesh. Her fingers fisted harder in his hair. She wanted everything he wanted to give and damn if he didn’t want to give more than he’d ever thought possible.

Instead of rising, exploring her body until he once again stood before her, he settled back on his knees. A wet spot darkened the silk covering her mound. Gripping her hips, Josh dug his fingers into the flesh of her ass and pulled her closer.

He covered her with his mouth and breathed a long, warm breath. An instant before backing away he nipped her clit through the silk and grinned delightedly when she popped her pelvis forward, angling for more.

“Josh, please.”

“I’ve wanted you since the last time I had you.” As hungry to please her as she was hungry to be pleased, he closed his mouth over her again and wiped his tongue across her thong. Her flavor seeped into his soul. He still couldn’t name her taste, but the muscles in his lower back fisted with the need to share her release.

He wouldn’t share this one, though. This time was all about the surrender she trusted him with.

Josh ground his back teeth with the effort to restrain himself. Dizzy, he slid her panties off. Tiny lines—white, barely visible—tracked the upper part of her thighs. As perfect as she’d been, the stretch marks from carrying Kendall somehow made her more so.

Looking at the slightly risen scar no more than four inches long that stretched left to right at the top of Aimee’s pubic hair line, he finally understood what people meant when they talked about emotions making their ribs shrink.

His rib cage shrank, or maybe his heart swelled.

She’d carried Kendall and her body bore the marks. Then, instead of a normal labor to recover from, she’d had a C-section, which according to his sister, meant months of discomfort.

Placing a kiss to the scar, he took a moment to breathe her in. She could have handled things so differently. She could have aborted the baby or called the tabloids or made it her mission to shatter his reputation. She’d done none of that.

“Josh?”

Her voice quivered. The quiver shook him from his thoughts and made him more determined to win her trust. With her legs trembling beneath his grip, Josh again closed his mouth over Aimee and took her straight to orgasm.