Maple Cove

When Dylan’s lips met hers, Wil­low believed she had final­ly come home. No kiss had ever been sweeter.

She had only kissed five men in the past dozen years. Every one of these men had wound­ed her. Betrayed her. Made her feel unwor­thy and insignificant.

Would Dylan do the same?

Even as he kissed her, Wil­low held back a part of her­self, unwill­ing to total­ly let go and live in this moment.

He broke the kiss. “Why aren’t you kiss­ing me back?”

She saw the con­fu­sion in the gray eyes she had loved so much. And hurt. Hurt that she had put there.

Touch­ing her fin­gers to his cheek, she said, “I’m no good at this, Dylan.”

Kiss­ing? I beg to dif­fer, Bear.” He framed her face in his large hands. “You have always been spec­tac­u­lar at kissing.”

A blush heat­ed her cheeks, both from his com­pli­ment and the fact he had called her Bear. When they had first start­ed dat­ing, Dylan told Wil­low she was cud­dly like a ted­dy bear—unless she was pissed about some­thing. Then he said she could be a bear about what­ev­er both­ered her. She had for­got­ten he called her that term of endearment.

Until now.

Dylan, I—”

You don’t trust me yet.” Hope shone in his eyes. “But you will, Wil­low. I promise you that.”

Carter cupped her cheek, his thumb stroking it. “I enjoyed our kiss, Tenley.”

I only had a hand­ful of dates until I mar­ried Theodore,” she admit­ted. “I was always work­ing, putting myself through school, and then try­ing to get ahead at my pub­lish­ing house. Theodore was the first man I had sex with.”

She delib­er­ate­ly used that term instead of mak­ing love because she real­ized in her heart that was all it had been.

He was more inter­est­ed in his sat­is­fac­tion and pret­ty much skipped kiss­ing. I fig­ured it was because I wasn’t very good at it.”

Carter leaned over and kissed her soft­ly. “I think you are spec­tac­u­lar at kiss­ing. Maybe you weren’t kiss­ing the right man.” He leaned in again for a lin­ger­ing kiss, one Ten­ley felt down to her curl­ing toes.

When he broke it, he said, “Just check­ing. Yes, you do know how to kiss.”

Ten­ley burst out laugh­ing, so com­fort­able and at ease with this hand­some, giv­ing man.

Carter brushed his lips against hers and then said, “I think it’s impor­tant that you ini­ti­ate that first kiss, Ten­ley. I know how chaot­ic your life has been and how emo­tion­al­ly raw you must be.”

She gazed at him steadi­ly. “I hope I don’t sound too for­ward when I say this, but I believe that I need you to help me heal. I can’t promise you what will come from this, Carter, but I’d like to start the heal­ing process soon.”

Ainsley’s heart beat in triple time as Jackson’s lips touched hers. A moment she had dreamed of.

And it was bet­ter than she ever could have imagined.

He brushed his lips against hers ten­der­ly, one hand cradling her nape, the oth­er going to the small of her back, his fin­gers spread­ing against it, draw­ing her clos­er to him.

Jack­son took his time, savor­ing her, mak­ing her feel cher­ished. His kiss even­tu­al­ly became more demand­ing, fir­ing her blood. He brought her flush against him, and she could feel the hard mus­cles of his chest. Slow­ly, he teased open her mouth, and she grant­ed him access will­ing­ly. His tongue began a sen­su­al explo­ration, which caused the blood to pound loud­ly in her ears, almost deaf­en­ing her.

Sud­den­ly, his hands moved to her waist and lift­ed her, plac­ing her on one of the large work tables where she and Gus knead­ed their dough. Jack­son stepped between her legs and framed her face with his long fin­gers, nev­er break­ing the kiss. Instead, he tilt­ed her head back slight­ly for bet­ter access and con­tin­ued his bar­rage of her mouth and senses.

Time stood still as the kiss went on, her body begin to hum with need. Timid­ly, Ains­ley final­ly stepped up and instead of being a receiv­er, became an active par­tic­i­pant in the kiss. Her arms went about his neck, and her fin­gers locked behind his nape as her tongue began stroking his. Jack­son let out a low groan, full of need, and their tongues went to war with one anoth­er, bat­tling for dom­i­na­tion. But no mat­ter what, they were both win­ners with this kiss.

Jack­son final­ly broke it, his lips glid­ing across her cheek and to her ear. His teeth tugged on her ear­lobe, caus­ing a wild sen­sa­tion to spread through her. She had nev­er felt it before, but she imme­di­ate­ly put a name to it.


His gut told him that he’d made a mis­take announc­ing to her he would nev­er get mar­ried again. That it had ruined any kind of chance he had with this woman. Then Nash remind­ed him­self that he wasn’t the kind to tru­ly set­tle down. He didn’t want to stay in one place for too long. He couldn’t give a decent woman like Rylie Robin­son what she said she was look­ing for. A per­ma­nent home with a hus­band who would give her chil­dren. He was so messed up from his piti­ful child­hood. A drunk­en father. A moth­er who aban­doned him.

Rylie set her emp­ty plate on the cof­fee table and rose, Nash fol­low­ing suit.

Thank you for hav­ing me over for din­ner, Nash.”

He walked her to door and then out to her car, want­i­ng to fix things between them and not hav­ing the words to do so.

She climbed behind the wheel and said, “Stop by my store some­time. You said you carve things. Maybe by see­ing some of my stock, you might get an idea for a new project.”

I’ll do that,” he said, smil­ing at her, know­ing he nev­er would.

Tonight had been a mis­take. A big one. Nash told him­self he was a lon­er at heart, and both he and Rylie would be bet­ter off if they didn’t have any more contact.

He raised a hand and waved as she left, sad­ness sweep­ing through him. Watch­ing her back down the dri­ve­way was as if he watched any chance of hap­pi­ness slip­ping away.

Nash turned, kick­ing the grav­el, and stormed up the steps. Catch­ing sight of the porch swing, he sat, hop­ing his anger and frus­tra­tion would fade.

They didn’t—but a song began to form.

He went inside and retrieved his gui­tar, return­ing to the porch and rock­ing as the song began form­ing in his mind.

An hour lat­er, he knew he had writ­ten a hit.

Wil­low and Ten­ley began talk­ing excit­ed­ly, men­tion­ing all the places they want­ed Sloane to see. Trails to hike. Beach­es to see. Peo­ple to meet. Shops to browse in. The more they talked, the more over­whelmed she became.

Then a swoosh­ing ran through Sloane, like a tsuna­mi slam­ming into her. Her hand, which rest­ed atop her back­pack, gripped it tight­ly. It seemed as if the walls of the car were clos­ing in. Her heart began to race. Sweat broke out along her hair­line. Nau­sea filled her.

Then Gage’s large hand cov­ered hers. The churn­ing with­in her con­tin­ued a moment and then slow­ly began to sub­side. She was able to take a breath. The sud­den onset of fear began to subside.

As Ten­ley and Wil­low con­tin­ued talk­ing, he leaned close. “It was a pan­ic attack,” he said soft­ly. “Have you ever had one before?”

She shook her head. “Nev­er.”

When it hap­pens again, I want you to breathe in slow­ly and deeply and count to four. Then hold for four sec­onds. Exhale through your mouth four sec­onds. Try it now.”


She did as Gage had instruct­ed, push­ing air in and hold­ing before delib­er­ate­ly eas­ing it out, pray­ing her friends wouldn’t notice some­thing was wrong with her.

Bet­ter?” he asked.

She nod­ded. “I feel more relaxed. And more in control.”

It’s called box breath­ing. It low­ers your heart rate in a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion. SEALS do it before they go into combat.”

How long, Sloane? Sloane?”

She blinked, try­ing to force her­self to remain calm. “I’m sor­ry, Ten­ley. What?”

I asked how long you plan on stay­ing in the Cove? You know we’re so glad you’ve come,” her friend said. “It’s going to be like old times.”

Sloane looked at Gage as she answered. “As long as you want me around.”