Mimi kissed her cheek and then turned back to Luke. “It was very nice to meet you, Luke.”
“You too, Mrs. Winters.”
“Oh, please. Call me Mimi. When are you coming home, baby?” she asked Ali.
As she’d been told not to leave town, she was pretty sure it wouldn’t be any time soon. “I’ll let you know.”
“Next weekend? ’Cuz they’re filming a new reality show down the street. Something about men and their tools and the women who love them. You could help us get on TV.”
“Would love to,” Ali said. “But I’m working.”
“The weekend after then,” Mimi said. “For my surprise birthday party.”
“Mom,” Harper said, exasperated. “You said you wanted it to be a surprise.”
“I do. I want to be surprised by both my daughters throwing me a party with friends and flowers and balloons and lots of decorations.”
“I don’t think you’re getting the concept of surprise,” Harper said.
“And maybe a piñata,” Mimi went on, “but with good stuff in it. Too bad men can’t fit into piñatas…”
“No men in piñatas,” Harper said. “That’s a different kind of party altogether.”
“Fine,” Mimi said. “But I still want the balloons and flowers. And Ali.”
“I’ll be there,” Ali promised, and watched them get into Harper’s car. The engine coughed, emitted a bunch of smoke, and then leaped into gear.
“You crossed your fingers,” Luke said.
“When you promised her that everything was going to be fine.”
Ali turned away. “She needs to think that everything is going to be fine.”
Luke pulled her back and looked at her for a long moment. “Cell phone.”
“I need your cell phone.”
She passed it over, watching as he programmed his number into it.
“For the next time you’re faced with one phone call,” he said. Luke looked into her eyes and let out a long breath. “Look, don’t read more into this than it is. If you need me, you call.”
“That simple?” she asked.
He shrugged, which she took to mean that he really had no idea, but he’d still do it.
“I wasn’t going to call you,” she said. “You’re on vacation.”
“I’m also not getting involved, but neither is working out so well for me.”
Her mind had been going one hundred miles per hour since the cops had shown up at the door that morning. The adrenaline was wearing off, leaving her exhausted and far too shaky and emotional to deal with this. Horrifyingly close to the edge, she chewed on her lower lip and ordered herself not to lose it. “Why did you come?” she asked.
“You needed a ride.”
Her chest squeezed even tighter. “You’re not worried I’m going to steal something from you?”
“Stop,” he said, his voice far too gentle for her fragile state of mind. She swallowed the lump in her throat and told herself she was just tired. This was out of control. She was out of control. It was just that for once, she wanted her life to move in a direction that she directed. With a sigh, she looked away. Life around her appeared to be maintaining the status quo. There was the usual early evening, low-level traffic. People were just getting off work and heading to the gym, the grocery store, the pier…home.
Ali had no idea where that would be for her tonight.
All she wanted was a hot shower and then to go to bed and not wake up again until this whole unbelievable situation had resolved itself. Or until she was old and gray. Whichever came first.
Luke was looking her over. She was still wearing her apron. She had a streak of dried clay across one arm and on one foot. And given the look Luke aimed at her face, she had some there as well. She lifted her chin.
With a small twitch of his lips, he hitched his head in the direction of his truck. He opened the passenger door for her and waited until she pulled her seatbelt across her body before he hit the lock and shut the door. He walked around the front of the vehicle, his stride long-legged and easy. No rush.
When he slid behind the wheel, he put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the engine. There was a beat of silence, and then he turned to her, one hand on the back of her head rest, the other on the dash.
She did her best to appear as though she hadn’t just been sitting in an interrogation room for hours being questioned about a crime she hadn’t committed. But as it turned out, the pretense was far too much for her overloaded emotions, and she closed her eyes, trying to disappear into the seat. If she disappeared, then he couldn’t see her fall apart.
“You okay?” he asked.
Her throat tightened further, and she shook her head. Nope. Not okay. Not even close. “Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t be nice to me right now. I’ll lose it.”
With surprising gentleness, he pushed the hair from her face, then clicked open her seatbelt.
It was all the invitation she was going to get, and all the invitation she needed. Turning to him, she burrowed in as steady, strong arms closed around her. He stroked a hand down her back, and she pressed her face into the crook of his neck, soaking in the warm comfort he offered.
It was the safest and most secure she’d felt in far too long, and she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to let go.
Afraid he was going to pull away before she was done soaking him in, she squirmed a little closer. “Please, not yet.”
A rough sound escaped him, and he tightened his grip. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
Thank God. For just this one second, someone had her. She didn’t have to be strong all on her own. She exhaled a long, shaky breath and concentrated on dragging more air in. After a few beats, she realized he smelled amazing, guy amazing, and that her lips were pressed against his throat. Suddenly it wasn’t just comfort she was feeling, but a whole boatload of other things too, with arousal leading the pack. Extremely aware of the big, warm hand moving up and down on her back, she wondered—did he feel it too?
And then she had a bigger problem. Her face was still pressed up against his warm skin, and—look at that—every time she moved, her mouth slid over him.
He hadn’t shaved that morning, probably not yesterday either, and his skin was rough with stubble. Deliciously rough. And then there was his scent…Yum. She could no more have stopped herself from doing it again as she could have stopped breathing.
In reaction, Luke let out a low, very male sound that called to the most female part of her.
Which answered her question. Yeah, he felt it too.
He said her name again, his hand coming up to cup her jaw, his fingers weaving their way into her hair, tightening as if to draw her away from him.
But he didn’t.
Shaken, she inhaled a deep, uneven breath. Her breasts brushed his chest. The first time was accidental. The second time was all her. So was the third, and her entire body got all warm and tightened. What would it be like to have such a man belong to her? To belong to him? To kiss that mouth, feel it open under hers, feel it on her?
The temptation was too much, and her lips slid over his throat yet again. It still wasn’t enough. She needed to taste him.
Don’t do it…
But her day had been complete shit, her brain was full—too full—and there was no room in it for logic. None. So she did it. She ran her tongue along the column of his throat, and then because that was so good, she let her teeth sink into him a little bit as well.
A rough groan escaped him. Pulling her back, he searched her gaze for something, though she had no idea what. Probably her sanity.
Too late, she could have told him. She’d lost it.
Whatever he saw, he shook his head.
He was going to pull back. She could feel it in the sudden tautness of his muscles. She gave him her best sex kitten look, but the truth was she wasn’t exactly a sex kitten on the best of days, and this was definitely not one of those. But something in his eyes warmed. Still half expecting him to push her back into the seat, she was surprised when he instead pulled her up against him.
“Playing with fire,” he murmured. “And one of us is going to get burned.”
She managed a nod. Yes, and yes. And for the record, the person getting burned would be her. She was already burning up, from the inside out. A full-blown inferno, and he’d barely touched her. She hadn’t even realized until now how badly she wanted him.
Moving slowly, clearly giving her plenty of time to stop him, Luke cupped the nape of her neck, gliding his thumb along the sensitive skin there. Then he slowly leaned in.
She met him halfway, pathetically eager, but she couldn’t help herself.
Luke let out a half groan, half low laugh that seemed to be aimed more at himself than her. He shook his head again and brushed his mouth across hers.
When she murmured for more, demanded really, he did it again, and then finally he deepened the connection, parting her lips with his, kissing her deep and hot, banishing every worrisome, unhappy thought from her mind. When they broke for air, he ran his tongue over her bottom lip before gently sinking his teeth into it, just as she’d done to his neck. Heat and desire licked through her like flames, and her fingers curled into his shirt. She wasn’t ready to stop, wasn’t ready to come back to reality.
He said her name in a silky, rough whisper, covered her mouth with his again, and as before, there was no more thinking.
Hell, there was no more air. There was nothing but this, and she strained to get even closer, thwarted by the console between them. She couldn’t help it. Whether merely walking into a room or picking her up from jail, he had a way of commanding her attention. He was steady as a rock, steely. Edgy. Dangerous.
His kiss was all those things too. And he was a master at it, his big hand still gently caressing her neck, liquefying her bones with each delicious stroke of his tongue to hers. His other hand slid down her back, settling low on her spine, holding her still as he plundered.