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.
“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.”