Originally written for the Truly, Madly, Deeply Romance Authors blog
Nerina watched Kegan enter the room like he owned it, confidence in every step as his masculine swagger carried him towards her. She steeled her spine and pushed her shoulders back, raising her chin as she assessed him from head to toe. He was in that damn gray t-shirt again. She rolled her eyes and tried to keep the annoyance from her face. But really, tonight of all nights? She understood his attachment to the worn gray shirt, the white letters so faded only his closest friends knew they spelled Galveston. She'd never deny him the reminder of what he'd had, except it was holding him back so securely from what could be.
His strong, long legs were encased in well-worn blue jeans and he had on black military-style boots. He created a tough image, standing six-four in said boots with his broad shouldered build. Most men stepped out of the way when they saw him coming, some women too. But Nerina never had. She'd taken one look at him when they were teenagers and fallen helplessly in awe. Once her heart became irrevocably his, she was at loose ends, unable to move forward even as he continued to look back. But two years had passed in heartbeats and she was tired of sitting in limbo. Tonight she would lay it all out for him and deal with the consequences. She would either lose a great friend or gain a lover. Both prospects terrified her.
He reached her side and flashed his knee-melting grin. Thank god she was already sitting down. Playing nonchalant with him was always a challenge but she was feeling very vulnerable tonight.
"Hey, beautiful. What's got such a serious look on your face?"
His deep voice sent a shiver up her spine and she rubbed her hands up and down her bare arms. The sleeveless silk blouse had seemed like such a good idea this afternoon when the thermostat read eighty. However, in true south-Texas fashion the temperature had dropped with little notice and was now a cool sixty-eight outside. She'd been sitting by the door waiting for him, but now that he was here the rest of the room was too full to move.
She looked around with a shrug. "I have a lot on my mind, Kegan. I wanted to talk to you but the party started early and you're a little late."
It was the only admonishment she'd give him. Not that it mattered. His world ran on Kegan time, as all of his friends knew by now. His confident grin melted into serious regret and he stepped closer. She hated when his heat warmed her skin, giving her a hint of what she was missing every night in her lonely bed.
He placed his large palms over her smaller hands and moved them up and down in unison. Now she shivered for a different reason as her body instantly warmed.
"I'm sorry I'm late, honey. I had to find the perfect gift to give the perfect gal. It was a hell of a lot harder than I'd expected."
She rolled her eyes again but smiled to ease his mind. She was upset but didn't think it would matter much to him anyway. No use getting worked up.
Anger flashed across his face so briefly she might have imagined it. He tightened his grip on her arms and gently pulled her from the bar stool she'd been perched on the past hour. She allowed it, more curious than concerned as he pulled her against him and turned her toward the back of the house. It was crowded with her friends and co-workers, who parted like the Red Sea as Kegan navigated his way through them. She smiled and spoke briefly to who she could as they passed, but no one seemed to find it odd that he had her in his grasp as they headed for her bedroom.
His muscular chest pressed against her back and she wanted to melt into his arms. Being strong was a lot harder than she'd thought it would be. How could she say goodbye to him? She would be ripping half her heart from her chest, but it had been waiting in vain for too long.
They finally reached her room and went inside. She walked to her dresser and looked down at the picture of them at the lake from three months ago. That was the weekend she'd decided to end this farce. He'd seemed so happy until someone had mentioned Angela. Then the rest of the time he'd been distant.
The lock clicked into place behind her and she spun on her heel to face him. He was leaning against the door with his arms crossed over his chest. She ran her gaze across his biceps, wishing that strength still surrounded her. He was always quick to hug her, but then just as quick to let her go. She didn't want to go.
"All right, now that we're alone, tell me what you wanted to talk to me about."
This was it. The time had finally come and real fear snaked up her spine. Could she really do this? Could she really give him her ultimatum and face the consequences of his choice? Tears burned the back of her throat as she realized she had to. It was now or never and she may as well get it over with. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, opening her mouth to speak, but then he raised a hand to stop her.
"Wait. With the look you have on your face, I think maybe I need to go first."
She closed her mouth and frowned at him, but he just uncrossed his arms and ran his hands through his thick, black hair.
“Nerina, honey, let me talk. I always let you do all the talking while I just smile and nod. I know I've been an ass for months and you've put up with it. Now I need to talk.”
She refused to let hope fill her. Damn near anything could fly out of his mouth with that introduction. With a huff of annoyance she walked over to her bed and sat down. Her feet were killing her. She kicked off her heels without a thought and looked up to find him grinning at her.
"You have such dainty feet. I've always thought they look so feminine."
Her face heated at the odd compliment and she crossed her ankles as if that could hide the objects of his inspection. His grin widened as he if he knew what she was doing and she frowned again.
"So, what do you have to say?" she asked.
His grin faded and he closed the distance to the bed. She fought the urge to squirm when he sat down on the floor. He pulled her feet onto his lap and ran his hands up and down her calves.
"I've missed you."
"I haven't been away."
"Not physically, but ever since we left Lake Conroe there's been distance between us. I don't like it, honey. I know its my fault but I don't know how to fix it. Tell me what I need to do."
It was hard to think with his hands on her legs. Even with the thin stockings separating their skin, she felt a jolt from his touch. Her modest skirt fell below her knees even while she was sitting, but his hands didn't stop at the hem. He ran his fingers up to her knees, tickling the backs ever so slightly until she wanted to scream.
"K-Kegan, stop that."
Any other time she would've laughed at the innocent expression on his face, but not tonight.
She pulled her feet away and stood, pacing across the room to ease her agitation.
“I like touching you.”
She huffed out a breath and continued to pace. “Sure you do.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She stopped walking and turned to face him, setting her hands on her hips. “Why do you think there’s been distance between us?”
He frowned in thought, and twisted around to lean against the bed and face her. “Luke said I’m being an ass and Mark agreed. When I asked them to elaborate they clammed up. Are you going to enlighten me or is everyone just going to continue watching me be an ass and then get pissy with me for it later?”
He was getting angry. She could hear it in his voice. This conversation wasn't going exactly as planned and now he was on the defensive. She considered dropping it and saying something lighthearted to ease his mind, but she just couldn't do it anymore.
“ I've been offered a really good job in Austin.”
His head snapped up from where he’d been studying his boots, and shock radiated from him. He shook his head, then jumped to his feet and closed the distance between them. “Are you going to take it?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He grasped her face in both hands and kissed her suddenly. She placed her hands on his but made no attempt to stop him, just held on for dear life as shock filled her. It wasn't a chaste or quick kiss. He took his time, nibbling on her lips until she opened for him, then he plunged his tongue in deep. She moaned and leaned her body into his, reveling in the sensation of him against her.
“I don’t want you to go,” he panted between kisses.
He made an erotic trail from her lips down to her throat. She let her head fall back to give him full access, and he wrapped an arm around her to keep her steady.
“Say you’ll stay with me,” he whispered.
“Say you want me to,” she whispered back.
He stopped kissing her and looked into her eyes. “Can’t you tell?”
She sighed, and pulled away from him. He seemed reluctant to let her go but she persisted.
“Will her ghost always be between us? Will you be able to dedicate yourself to me without her getting in the way?”
His expression closed down and he took a step back, widening the gap between them in more ways than one. “What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. Things are always good with us until someone mentions Angela. Then you shut down and I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. I know you miss her, and I don’t blame you for that, but it’s been two years.”
He turned away and paced the length of her bedroom. She watched his strong back and silently cursed fate.
“Sometimes I wonder if you look at me and wish I was her. I wonder if you wish I’d been the one in the water instead.”
He immediately spun around and came to her, grabbing her arms and pulling her against his chest. “That’s not true. I've never…never, felt that way about you. What Angela did, she did to herself. It had nothing to do with you.”
Tears burned the back of her throat. Guilt ached like a knife in her chest and she almost couldn't get the next words out. “Sh-she told me.”
He frowned and loosened his grip slightly. “Told you what?”
“She told me she wanted to die. She said she had been thinking about killing herself and I tried to talk her out of it.”
“Did you know she was going out on the boat that night?”
“No. We’d been up all night, drinking wine and talking about stuff. I passed out and when I woke she was gone.”
He continued to look into her eyes a heartbeat longer, then pulled her fully into his arms. “Oh, honey, it’s not your fault anymore than it’s mine. We were closest to her and couldn't stop her from leaving us. It was her choice.”
Nerina sobbed against his chest, releasing the guilt and pain she’d been holding the past two years. He rubbed her back and let her cry, holding her up when her knees weakened. After what felt like an eternity, there was a sharp knock on the door.
“Shit, I guess they finally noticed we've been missing,” he said. She sighed and moved out of his arms, turning away to wipe her face with her hands. Kegan opened the door and had a quiet conversation with Mark, then closed and locked the door again.
“Hey, birthday girl, the party is winding down. Mark and Luke are herding out the stragglers. They’ll lock up behind them here in a few minutes.” She nodded but kept her back to him. “You haven’t opened your presents.”
A sigh escaped as she realized what a terrible hostess she had been. The first part of the night had been spent sitting by the door waiting for Kegan to arrive. The second part had been spent holed up in her room with him. She would have many apologies to make tomorrow.
“I’ll do it later,” she mumbled.
“Not mine you won’t. Come on.”
He took her by the arm and dragged her out of her room. True to their word, Mark and Luke had gotten everyone out the door and locked up. A few beer bottles and empty plates strewn around the house proved a party had taken place but it was over now. She was officially twenty-five.
Kegan led her to a table shoved in one corner of the living room where colorful bags and packages were displayed. Her birthday gifts. There were about a dozen in various shapes and sizes, and he took the smallest one from the pile.
“I wasn't kidding when I said I’d had a hard time getting your gift. I wanted something unique and beautiful, like you. That was damn near impossible. So, I settled for something important instead.”
He handed her a flat, rectangular purple box. She untied the bow holding it closed and opened it warily. It was the type that typically held expensive jewelry but there was only paper inside.
She took the paper out and realized it was a computer print out of an itinerary.
“I don’t understand.”
“He took the box and paper from her hand and set them on the table, then pulled her into his arms again. “We’re going on a trip.”
His slight hesitation made her wary. “Galveston.”
She sighed and tried to pull away but he tightened his grip. “No, wait. Listen to me.”
“I don’t want to go there ever again.”
“Me either, but that’s why we should.”
She stopped struggling but kept her face averted, stubbornly refusing to face him. “I don’t want to.”
He huffed out a breath and pressed his mouth to her cheek. “We’re going to say goodbye, honey. I’m going to rip this shirt into little pieces and toss it into the gulf. Then we’ll say goodbye to her once and for all, and start fresh.”
She finally faced him, almost afraid to hope. “We?”
“Yeah, you and I. I’m not letting you go without a fight, and if Angela’s ghost is what’s getting between us then it’s time to do something about it.”
Hope was slow to come as she considered the past few months of trying to hold on to it. But this was the first time he’d mentioned saying goodbye to Angela, and he was even willing to get rid of the gray shirt. That had to count for something.
“Okay,” she finally said.
“Yeah. Let’s do it. When are we going?”
He smiled and kissed her lightly. “You’re off tomorrow, right?”
Kegan watched the waves lap against the seawall and inhaled a deep breath of salty air. He’d missed this the past few months, but the pain of returning wasn't nearly as acute as he had feared. Nerina’s hand in his gave him strength and reminded him that he had too much in his future to keep living in the past. He had loved Angela but she had needed something he couldn't give. What that was, none of their circle of friends had been able to find out, and now she was gone.
He’d made Nerina wait on him for way too long. The knowledge that he’d come close to losing her terrified him. Austin wasn't that far away, but she would've started a whole new life there. She would've met another man that wasn't being held back by a ghost. The fact that losing her was so much more painful than this goodbye only solidified his decision. It was time to start fresh.
They left the seawall and walked the beach all afternoon, then returned to the hotel for dinner. Nerina had been quiet most of the day and it worried him, but he knew she would open up when she was ready. As they took the elevator up to their room she finally voiced her thoughts.
“You only reserved one room.”
He smiled to himself. “Yes.”
“So…we’re both sleeping in one bed?”
Agitation radiated from her in waves and he nearly laughed. This was what they both wanted and he knew it. They had waited long enough. They reached their floor and she remained silent as they entered the room. He picked up the remote and turned the TV on while she set down her purse and removed her jewelry.
“Oh, I love that song.”
Her admission brought his attention to the channel he had stopped on, where the video for Into the Ocean by Blue October was playing.
“Yeah?” he asked. “It’s kind of depressing isn't it?”
She shrugged and kicked off her sandals. “It’s like a sad love song, I guess.”
He listened more closely to the words and set the remote on the nightstand. “Sounds like it’s about surrendering your heart,” he said.
She shrugged again and watched him warily as he approached.
“Are you willing to do that, Nerina?”
“Surrender my heart to you?” He nodded. “I already have.”
Pleasant surprise filled him at her easy admission and grew into shock as she pulled her shirt over her head. He remained frozen in place as she unzipped her shorts and let them fall to her feet, then stepped from the puddle to stand inches away.
“Are you willing, Kegan?”
For a moment he thought she meant to get naked, but luckily he realized his mistake before answering. He pulled his shirt off and wrapped his arms around her waist, looking into her curious gaze. “I’m more than willing, honey, I’m eager. I know I can trust you to hold my heart and care for it like I need. Just as I’m willing and able to do the same for you.”
Her amusement melted away and moisture filled her gaze. He kissed her before she could say anything else. It was a few minutes before he could think clearly again. The sweet taste of her mouth drowned him in sensation and he was reluctant to stop. Once he did, he lifted her into his arms and took her to the bed. He placed her in the center and hovered over her on hands and knees, just watching her wait for his touch.
“You are so perfect,” he whispered.
She smiled and ran her hands over his chest. “So are you.”
He grinned and looked at her black lace bra and panties. “I love you in black lace, but I think I’ll love you even more out of it.”
She laughed breathlessly and unhooked the front clasp of her bra. He held his breath as her amazing breasts were slowly revealed to his starving eyes. He'd had fantasies about those breasts.
“Perfect,” he whispered.
As soon as her bra was out of his way, he bent his head and ran his tongue across one of her light brown nipples. She gasped and plunged her hands into his hair, holding him in place.
He had a thorough tasting of first one, then the other, before licking a path down her stomach. He nibbled on her navel, making her laugh and push on his head, before traveling further south. Her panties stopped his progress but he didn't mind the interruption. He left the bed long enough to strip off the rest of his clothes and get a condom from his bag.
“Just a minute, honey, I don’t want to forget this.”
She smiled as he dropped the foil packet beside her and rejoined her on the bed. "Now…where was I?”
She laughed again as he ran a fingertip beneath the top of her panties. He pulled them down slowly to reveal the prize beneath. His heart nearly stopped when he saw she was shaved bare.
“Damn. I’m going to die of pleasure just from looking at you.”
She shivered as he ran his fingers between her legs. He urged her thighs apart and took a moment to just stare.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Just looking at paradise.” She laughed and rolled onto her side to face him. “Hey.”
“Hey nothing. Do you know how long I've waited for you to touch me? Let’s get this show on the road, cowboy. You can explore later.”
He barked out a laugh as she pushed on his shoulders until he lay flat on his back. Then she straddled him and picked up the condom.
“I don’t think so.”
She ripped open the package and made short work of covering his erection.
“But you’re not ready.”
“Are you kidding?”
She laughed and moved up to rub herself against him. Moisture glistened on his covered cock, telling him she was definitely ready.
“I know what you mean, but trust me…I’m ready.”
His body was telling him to shut up and let her do as she would, but his heart was still unsure. He grasped her hips to slow her ministrations as she continued to thrust against him.
“Kegan, if you stop me, I swear I’ll…punch you in the mouth.”
He laughed and his hold loosened. She grasped his cock in one small fist, abruptly ending his amusement. He moaned as she began to stroke him. “All right, honey. Go for it.”
Her face brightened with his permission and he promised himself he would do whatever it took to always get that smile from her. Then she placed his erection at her entrance and slowly sank down. All coherent thought flew from his head as sensation took over. Tight, warm pleasure filled his mind and he groaned in surrender.
She set her hands on his shoulders and moved against him slowly. He let her set the pace as their bodies became acquainted. Her soft skin warmed his hands and he filled them with her breasts. She moaned as he teased her nipples before wrapping his arms around her and pulling against his chest.
“I can’t…move…like this,” she panted.
He thrust his hips upward to show he could continue their movement and held her head for his kiss. She let him control their pleasure for a little while, but soon took over again. She kissed him one last time before sitting up to increase their tempo. He let her ride his cock and watched pleasure wash over her face. She was glorious, with a light sheen of sweat beading on her tanned skin. Her dark brown hair fell in waves to her waist, brushing his thighs when she threw her head back.
He grasped her hips and increased the tempo yet again, urging her to climax. Her fingertips dug into his chest and she closed her eyes. He knew she was close. He slipped a hand between them and found her hardened clitoris, rubbing it with his thumb. She cried out as an intense orgasm washed over her, clenching her feminine muscles. He gasped when the grip on his cock tightened and in the next heartbeat joined her in ecstasy.
He held her against his chest and listened to her breathing slow to normal. This was what had been missing in his life. He’d needed to hold her, to love her and know that she loved him. She hadn't said it but it had been in her gaze, in her voice and in every touch they had shared for months. He would be forever grateful that he’d realized it before it was too late.
She stirred against him and he tightened his hold. He didn't want to relinquish her warmth just yet.
“We should shower,” she mumbled.
He chuckled. “Yeah, probably.”
“Do I have to get up or will you carry me?”
“I’ll carry you, honey, but I want to tell you something first.”
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. “For the sex?”
He chuckled again and shook his head. “The sex was amazing, but that’s not what I’m thanking you for.”
“Not giving up on me. You know, the more I think about that song we were listening to earlier, the more I realize just how lost I was. I kind of felt like that, you know? Like I just wanted to float away because no matter how hard I swam I couldn't make it to shore. But even on my darkest days you were always the beacon that brought me back.”
She sniffed and placed a kiss on his chin. “I’m glad I could. You’re welcome.”
He smiled. “I love you, Nerina.”
Surprise lit her gaze before a small smile brightened her face. “I love you too, Kegan.”
“I know, and I’ll be forever grateful that you do.”
He kissed her thoroughly before carrying her to the shower.
Leah took a deep breath and then another sip of her drink before pasting a smile on her face. Sean didn't seem to notice it any more than he’d noticed she’d stopped talking mid-sentence. She bit her lip and again fought the urge to look over her shoulder. She knew who he kept gazing at and it hurt, but she was a big girl. Leah had grown used to being overlooked by boys as soon as her sisters entered the room. Now that she was a woman it was no different, but she was able to hide the pain a lot better. “Well, it’s been fun, but I better get going,” she said more cheerfully than necessary. She briefly wondered if Sean could tell by her voice. “Um, yeah…okay.” He didn't even bother looking at her. Leah sighed and walked past him, placing her empty wine glass on a table, as she wove through the crowded room. She loved her family’s art gallery and spent most of her free time there. Her mother was a well known artist and Leah and her twin sisters had been attending openings just like this their whole lives. As she approached the door she considered turning back to see if Sean had noticed her departure yet. The thought that he wouldn't care once he did kept her moving purposely forward. She took her coat and walked out into the cool night, knowing the bone-deep chill was from the inside out. The cab that pulled up to the curb was immediately snagged by an older couple who stepped out just before Leah. She looked up and down the street, but it was empty of any other traffic. The gallery was in a great location for daytime events. During the upcoming spring months, they would make a killing with the tourists. Unfortunately there was no nightlife in close proximity. Any cabs that came their way in the evenings had either been called or were lost. She sighed and turned toward home. It wasn't a long walk, but she was tired and depressed. The eight city blocks would feel like twenty. Three steps away from the gallery door a hand on her elbow stopped Leah from her arduous journey. She froze and looked up to find Sean looking down at her with a slight frown and an apology in his gaze. She smiled gently and held up a hand before he could speak. “It’s all right, Sean. I have an early morning and need to get home.” He sighed and let go of her. "I’m sorry, Leah. I know I seemed distracted, it’s just that—" “No, really. You don’t have to explain yourself. It’s not like we’re dating or anything, right?” He closed his mouth and nodded, as he slipped his hands into the pockets of his well-tailored slacks. Leah fought the urge to look him up and down, admiring the image of strength and virility he exuded. She’d been admiring Sean for a long time, but he’d never noticed. They’d been friends since high school and she knew everything about him, including the fact that he was in love with her sister, Lily.
“No. It’s not all right. I came tonight with you on my arm, but then ignored you. I’m really sorry. You deserve a hell of a lot better than that.” Leah gave a little laugh and looked away so he wouldn't see the moisture in her eyes. He’d been there for every heartbreak. He alone knew how everyone treated her in comparison to her beautiful twin sisters. They’d never talked about it because Leah knew of his feelings for Lily. However, Sean had offered Leah friendship when everyone else pretended she didn't exist. She cleared her throat and swallowed down her tears. This wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last. She just had to get out of here without falling apart and everything would be okay. She turned back to face him with a smile. “No biggie. I’ll just have to work on my conversational skills.” He frowned and opened his mouth to reply when a cab pulled up to the curb. She immediately reached for the door, grateful for the means to escape this awkward conversation. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? Goodnight.” He sighed and let her go. “Goodnight, Leah.” She shut the door and gave the driver her address before leaning her head on her hand. A headache was forming and she fought it with thoughts of her current project. She didn't have the skill with paint like her sisters, or the patience for sculpture like her mother, but she was a photographer. Capturing the essence of emotion with the camera’s eye was her outlet and she lived for it. The pictures she’d taken of Sean for his mother filled her mind and her heart hurt again. She sighed and closed her eyes. It was going to be a long night. Sean watched the receding taillights of the cab taking Leah home to her empty loft and wanted to kick his own ass. I’m such an idiot. He’d sworn he wouldn't do this again, promised himself to pay more attention to her. She was his best friend and he treated her like dirt every time Lily entered the room. Ten years they’d been friends and nothing had changed. He still drooled over Lily, who never gave him a second look, while Leah stood patiently on the sidelines waiting for him to remember her. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, wondering if he should just call it a night. “Did you run my sister off?” His head snapped up at the soft feminine voice he’d heard in more dreams than he could number. Lily stood in her tight black dress and four-inch heels looking like a wet dream, and smiling at him like he’d always fantasized. “She has an early morning,” he replied, amazed he could form a coherent thought. Lily laughed and took a step closer, putting her hands on his arm. “Does she now? Well, I don’t and this shindig is just plain boring. Would you like to take me dancing?” Sean's heart sped up and he hoped it didn't give out before the night was over. Silently thanking whatever gods were listening, he nodded and gave Lily the grin that always made Leah blush. Lily didn't blush, but she smiled back and placed her hand in his. “I’m parked right over there,” he said, pointing across the street to his pick-up truck. She frowned. “Oh, a truck. Well, if that’s what you've got…” She shrugged and pulled Sean behind her as she stepped off the curb and crossed the street. He didn't like her tone when speaking about his baby, but decided to give her another chance. After all, she hadn't seen the inside yet, or heard the engine. He helped her into the passenger seat then quickly walked around to the driver’s side. It’s about damn time. He had been hoping for a chance like this for ten years, asking Leah to tutor him so he could go over to her house on a regular basis. The way he looked at it, not only did he gain a best friend, he might also gain the woman of his dreams. He took a deep breath as he slid into the driver’s seat and started his truck. “My, it sure is loud.” He looked over at Lily and grinned. This was going to be the best night of his life.
* * * * *
Leah woke with a headache and rubbed her puffy eyes as she sat up. It was Saturday and she had absolutely nothing planned all day. She’d hated lying to Sean, but knew he didn't care one way or another. Her lies helped him feel like everything between them was all right and kept him happy. With a sigh she began to wonder why she was so concerned with his happiness. He certainly doesn't give a damn about mine. She slapped her hands over her face as if that would block out the nagging voice of her conscience.
“This is ridiculous. I refuse to feel sorry for myself a second longer.” She pushed back the covers and got out of bed, heading for a hot shower to clear the last of the cobwebs. It only took twenty minutes for her to shower and dress, but the second she finished there was a knock on her door. She went to answer it while running a brush through her wet hair. “Good morning, sunshine.” She frowned as she stepped back to let Sean into her loft. He was still dressed in the clothes from the night before and there was stubble on his chin. A feeling of dread filled her stomach and she was thankful she hadn't eaten yet. “Hey. You’re up awfully early. What’s going on?” He turned to face her with a smile and she noticed his eyes were a bit red. “I haven’t gone to bed yet. Just thought I’d drop in to tell you about my amazing night out…with Lily.”
His grin went from ear to ear and Leah turned away as she fought to catch her breath. They told each other nearly everything and his feelings for Lily were no secret. However they didn't usually kiss and tell. Not that she had much to tell in that department. “Oh? You and Lily, huh? Wow, Sean, that’s great.” She was amazed at the sincerity in her steady voice. She started brushing her hair again, closing her eyes to keep from seeing his happiness. “Yup. Right after you left she came outside and asked me to take her dancing. Can you believe it? Finally! After ten years the woman finally noticed me and we had a blast. I’m spending the rest of the weekend with her.” Leah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She finished brushing her hair and finally opened her eyes. Sean was still grinning, his happiness clearly overriding his obvious exhaustion. “That’s really great. I’m happy for you.” He walked toward her and it took all of her willpower not to step away. He hugged her as her heart shattered. “Thanks, Leah. Here you've had to put up with me for all these years.” He laughed while she frowned. She wasn't stupid. She knew every guy in school who talked to her only wanted to get to her sisters. But this wasn't high school anymore. Surely he didn't still feel that way. “We’re friends. I don’t mind spending time with you.” His smile faded and he looked apologetic for a moment. “Uh, yeah, of course. I know. I’m just kidding.” He turned away before she could analyze his expression and walked over to the sofa. He dropped onto it with a sigh and let his head fall back. “Hey, do you mind if I crash here for a couple of hours? I don’t know if I can make the drive across town right now. I’m friggin’ exhausted.” She actually thought about saying no to him, just this once, but she knew if he left she would just fall into a million pieces and wallow in self-pity. This was the end. He’d finally gotten what he wanted and she would lose him to one of her sisters. Leah had become used to that by her sophomore year of high school with other guys, but had prayed it would never happen with Sean. Determined to nip the pity party in the bud, she straightened her spine and lifted her chin. At least if it got serious between Lily and Sean, Leah wouldn't have to worry about her next boyfriend…maybe. “Sure. Why don’t you take my bed? I’ll be in the darkroom all day anyway.” He lifted his head and winked at her before rising and walking silently up the stairs to her bedroom. She watched him disappear before heading into the sanctuary of her darkroom.
* * * * *
Sean rubbed his forehead and fought the headache brought on by the pounding bass drums. He looked around the club and wondered why he was the only one who seemed bothered by the flashing lights and too loud music. I must be getting old.
Four feet away, Lily and Rose were gyrating to the music while all around them men watched like a pack of wolves. One misstep and he wouldn't be the only one to know Lily wasn't wearing any panties. He’d wanted to take things slow, but she groped him every chance she got. She’d whispered into his ear the moment he picked her up that she was ready for him. He blew out a breath before downing his drink. Three weeks had passed since their first night together and he hadn't spoken to Leah since the morning after. He’d woken to find her making lunch but hadn't stayed to eat with her. His thoughts had been on Lily and not wanting to miss a second with the woman he’d dreamed of for so long. Now, as he stood here feeling uncomfortable and out of place, he came to a realization. He missed Leah…a lot. His gaze found Lily once again as she laughed along with her twin sister, Rose. They were identical in every way but the color of their hair. Both women were beautiful and loved to flirt and have fun, but they were polar opposites of their little sister, Leah. Sean thought about the past three weeks and the time he’d spent with Lily. He’d always admired her from afar, never really taking the time to learn anything about her that he couldn't easily see. She was beautiful, with her long blonde hair and hazel eyes. She kept in shape by going dancing several times a week. Her artist’s lifestyle allowing for many late nights. He’d yet to see her without make-up and wondered if her delicate bone structure would give her the fresh pixie-like appearance Leah’s did. Lily was spoiled and expected exactly what she wanted, how she wanted it, when she wanted. Leah was the epitome of patience. Lily had embarrassed him the first time they ate out by her persistence on perfection. She’d been more than rude and he’d left a very generous tip to make up for it. Leah went out of her way to say thank you to anyone who served her. Lily was a bitch, and after only three weeks he knew he was already tired of it. She’d made it obvious she wanted to have sex with him, but he hadn't made a move in that direction. He kept telling himself it was because he wanted to take things slow with her so they would last. Now, as he stood and watched her act like a slut on the dance floor, he finally admitted the truth to himself. He felt as if he was cheating on Leah, and sex with Lily would be the ultimate betrayal. He just couldn't do it. He couldn't do this anymore. He wanted Leah, not Lily, and it was finally time to grow up and let his adolescent fantasy go. He inhaled a deep breath and took the few steps to Lily, taking her by the arm and pulling her from the dance floor. “Hey, I was dancing!” “We need to talk,” he shouted over the music. She rolled her eyes, but let him lead her out of the club. He took her to his car, mentally cursing himself for letting her talk him into trading in his truck. He’d loved that damn truck. The sleek sports car was nice but it wasn't him, and apparently neither was Lily. He helped her into the passenger seat then slid into the driver’s side, knowing this was going to be a long ride for a short conversation.
Leah watched the image of a sea of Bluebonnets appear on the wet paper and smiled. It felt odd on her face, and she knew she hadn't been doing enough of that lately. She fought the thoughts of Sean that wanted to surface, and removed the eight-by-ten sheet of paper from the developer. “Almost done,” she said with a sigh, feeling the usual surge of satisfaction that always came with the completion of a project. This one hadn't felt like work at all. She loved Texas wildflowers and the quick trip into the hill country had helped clear her mind. Three weeks was the longest she’d spent without contact from Sean since they’d met. Even when they had attended different colleges their senior year, he’d called her every night. As soon as this last photo dried she would mount it and arrange the display. She shared the gallery with her mother and sisters, but they rarely let her have the main show room. This was a big deal for her and she hoped the showing went well. Her stomach rumbled making her laugh. I must be feeling better. She’d lost nearly fifteen pounds in the past three weeks. After navigating the light-tight door, she stepped into the open space of her loft and blinked. The track lighting was brighter than the red light of her darkroom. It took a few seconds of adjusting before she realized she wasn't alone. She blinked again, but the image of Sean sitting patiently on her sofa didn't disappear. He was watching her with an unreadable expression, dressed as if to go out on the town. She stood transfixed by the familiar sight of his broad shoulders and athletic build. His long legs were stretched out before him, crossed at the ankles. He’d cut his dark brown hair from the usual shaggy mess into a more modern spiky cut. It looked good on him, but made him look like every other guy at the clubs. She knew it was something Lily would like, as was the outfit of dark slacks and a buttoned up shirt. Leah preferred him in t-shirts and jeans.
“Hey.” Leah almost jumped when he finally broke the silence. She had no idea how long she’d been staring at him. “Hi.” He smiled briefly and leaned forward, placing his feet flat on the floor and his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands and rested his chin on them. The sight was so familiar it made her chest ache. She turned away and he abruptly stood. “No, don’t go. Please. I really need to talk to you.” She sighed, but didn't look back at him. Thoughts were swimming through her head and she prayed he wasn't here for advice. Lily and Rose were twins and as close to each other as could be expected, but Leah barely knew either of them. She was three years younger and so far on the outside she might as well have been a distant cousin. She’d been a “surprise” her mother had said, but Leah knew she was really an “accident”, or maybe even a “mistake”. She’d always been on the outside looking in. “I’m kind of in the middle of something, Sean. I need to finish up this project. I was about to work on the arrangement.” “Can I watch?” She did look at him then. He’d never seemed interested in her work, never went out of his way to ask about it or see what she was working on. She bit her lip in indecision, feeling this would definitely be a conversation she didn't want to have if he was so insistent. But she just couldn't seem to say no to him. She nodded and walked across the room to the area she used as a studio, blocked off from the rest of the room by three eight foot bookshelves overflowing with books. She walked through them without looking back. Sean followed her feeling more nervous than he had when he took Lily out for the first time. Leah had lost weight and there were dark circles under her eyes. She was wearing dark, baggy clothes that made her look like death incarnate. He wanted to kick himself and strip those ugly clothes off her. He knew she had low self-esteem and the reasons for it. The thought that he’d contributed to it pissed him off. There had to be a way to win her back. He just prayed he wasn't too late. He stepped through the shelves into her studio space and froze. All around him, Texas wildflowers bloomed in full color and black and white, creating a garden of beauty on film. Leah hadn't even arranged them yet and he was already impressed with her expert eye. He’d always admired her work, but rarely said so aloud. That thought made him frown and he wondered what the hell had been wrong with him for the past ten years. “So, what did you need?” He looked up at the sound of her voice, so different from Lily’s, and realized that was the voice of his dreams. All this time the woman of his fantasies had been right beside him and he’d been too busy looking across the room to notice. He took the few steps to her, but she was busying herself with the photos. He ran a hand through her silky black hair and she froze. “You, Leah. What I really need is you. Can you forgive me for being too stupid to realize it until now?” He watched in fear as she bent her head and stepped away from his touch. Her shoulders dropped and he wished he could read her thoughts. “This isn't funny, Sean. I don’t know what Lily said to convince you to play this prank, but…it’s really not funny.” He heard the tears in her voice and anger filled him, for himself and for Lily. What had Leah’s sisters done in the past to make her think this was a prank? How could she think he would stoop so low? He gently grabbed her arm and turned her to face him, pulling her into his embrace. Tears ran down her face and took his breath away. How did he go all those years without realizing how beautiful she was? “Sweetheart, this isn't a joke. I left Lily with Rose and headed straight over here. I couldn't stand spending another second without you. I’m, sorry it took three weeks for me to realize it, but I swear it’s no joke. I need you in my life. You, Leah, not Lily. You.” She didn't pull away, but her tears began to flow more freely. Sean didn't know how to stop them, so he did what he’d been wanting to do since he saw her walk into the room. He pulled her closer and bent his head, kissing her with every ounce of passion in his body, praying she would feel it too. She responded immediately, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him back. Relief filled him and he stopped thinking. He let her set the pace as the passion between them grew. Within heartbeats they were on the floor, wildflowers surrounding them. He unwrapped her like a present, happy to find the soft sweet body she hid was just as tantalizing as the one Lily proudly showed off. Leah sighed as he kissed his way down her torso, stopping momentarily to worship her breasts with his tongue. He loved the taste of her skin, loved the sounds of ecstasy coming from her mouth, loved…her.
He paused with his lips just above her curls, listening to her panting as the realization flowed through him. He truly loved Leah, and because of his own stupidity he'd almost lost her. He shut his eyes and inhaled the scent of her skin. “Sean? Uh…are you okay?” Her softly spoken words couldn't hide the uncertainly in her voice and he cursed himself for it. He raised his head to look her in the eye. She stared back warily. “I love you, Leah, and I plan on trying to make you happy for the rest of my life. Do you forgive me?” She gasped and tears began to fall again. He had a moment of panic until she smiled. “I love you too, Sean. I always have.” He sighed out a breath in relief and pulled himself back up her body to kiss her on the mouth. She kissed him back and they made love among the wildflowers. They laid in a tangle of limbs on the hard wooden floor, but neither wanted to move an inch. He looked around at the photos, once again admiring her obvious talent. “These photos are beautiful, sweetheart. I can almost smell them.” She giggled and hugged him tighter. “I can’t decide what to call the show. The first day of spring was two weeks ago and Texas Wildflowers just sounds too plain.” He looked around thoughtfully. “What about Spring Cleaning?” “What?” “You know, out with the old and in with the new? Spring is a time of rejuvenation. We should celebrate that.” She smiled at him, the smile he now knew she reserved just for him, and he felt as if his heart would burst. “I think we just did,” she said. He smiled back and kissed the tip of her nose. “Yes, my love, we just did. Would you mind if we tried it again, in your bed this time?” She giggled again as he rose from the floor. Then he lifted her into his arms and took her to bed, celebrating a new beginning with the true woman of his dreams.