It was everything about her.
“It’s going to be okay, you know,” she said.
“Your life, you mean?” he asked.
For months, he’d been operating deep in negativity and bad shit. There’d been no light at the end of the tunnel. His glass was half empty. No silver lining…
Not Ali. Her world had fallen apart too, and yet she looked at things completely differently. It wasn’t that she wore rose-colored glasses. No one who’d grown up as tough and fast as she had could wear rose-colored glasses. She simply chose not to live in the dark.
He admired and respected the hell out of that. He looked at the table and saw that she’d been painting a small ceramic bowl shaped like a canoe.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, gesturing to the table and her work. “We need a new key bowl.” Since she’d chucked the other one at his head…He smiled at the memory.
“My grandma painted in here too.” He looked to the other side of the garage, where Fay’s shelves still stood. He could almost see her, standing in front of her easel, the sun slanting in the window, casting her in a glow as she created magic out of a blank canvas. “I used to sit at her feet and watch.” He pointed to the sheet-covered beanbag chair. “I even gave it a shot myself when she bugged me about it.”
“Were you any good?”
“Not even a little bit.” He lifted a shoulder, surprised to feel warm at the memories, not regretful.
She came around the table. “So you lived here with her?”
“During the summers,” he said. “All my life, until she died.”
Her smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, me too.” He stared at the garage wall. “She shouldn’t have died like she did.”
She touched his arm. “What happened?”
He blew out a breath and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “Mornings weren’t her thing. We all knew it. Sara used to joke that in order to wake her up, we ought to just stand in the doorway and throw a two-by-four at her and then run like hell.”
She smiled. “My mom’s like that.”
“I learned young to leave her alone until she’d had her caffeine. Then the summer of my sophomore year in college, I was here working for a lumber company, and one day I got her up too early. Jesus, she lit into me and we got into a big, old fight.” He felt that familiar clutch of guilt. “I knew she needed me to move some boxes and furniture around for her, but I was a total dick about it. I left early for work and didn’t come home for my lunch break like we’d planned. After work, I went out on the water, and after that, hit a bar with the guys. I didn’t come back here until late.” He paused. “I found her on the bathroom floor. Stroke.”
“Oh, no,” Ali said softly, voice thick with pain for him. “Oh, Luke, how awful.”
He’d never forget the horror and gut-wrenching fear that had taken over his body at the sight of her. He’d dropped to his knees and tried to find a pulse, but she’d been cold and long gone. “It’d happened hours before. She probably lay there wondering where the hell I was and why I didn’t help her.”
She touched him, ran a hand down his back, saying nothing for a long moment. “How long until you were able to come back to the house?” she asked.
She went still, clearly doing the math. “This is your first time back?”
“Yeah.” He wished like hell that he could see his grandma standing there painting, smiling, full of life, just one more time. She’d always been so forgiving. So willing to love him, no matter what. And there’d been plenty to forgive, most notably the incident two years prior to her death, when he’d screwed up in a different way.
By failing Sara.
He’d failed them both, and Luke would give just about anything to be able to tell his grandma how sorry he was, that he never should have left her like he had. That he’d regretted it every single day since. That she was the reason he tried so damn hard these days to make sure he had nothing else to regret. “It was a long time ago,” he said.
“You and I both know that doesn’t matter,” she said quietly.
He stared down into her face, which was creased into an expression of honest concern. In the here and now, she had plenty to be worried about. Instead, she was worried about him and something he’d gone through ten years ago. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
“You’re probably ready to get back to San Francisco by now,” she said softly.
“Actually,” he said, “I love it here. I always have. But I need to get back. My commander’s been calling.”
She nodded, accepting, which wasn’t the same thing as being indifferent to his imminent departure, because she was the least indifferent person he’d ever met. She felt things to the bone. In fact, she had a capacity to feel things that he’d never had.
Or maybe it’d been so long he’d just forgotten how.
She could change that. At the thought, his chest tightened and burned with a need that wasn’t just physical, though there was that too. He wanted to let her warmth wash over him, wanted to feel things like she did.
Just for a moment, a single moment.
Or maybe two…
Hitting the touch pad on the wall to shut the garage door, he stepped close to her, sliding his hands up her bare arms to cup her face.
She met him halfway, winding her arms around his neck, her sweet kiss stealing the very air from his lungs. When her tongue touched his, it sent a bolt of hunger through him so strong he wasn’t sure he’d survive it. Pulling her up against himself, he enjoyed the feel of her, including the way her heart pounded hard into his.
When they broke apart, she stared up at him, breathing unsteadily. He touched her jaw, and she took his hand, wordlessly turning, tugging him with her. Into the house. Through the kitchen. Into her bedroom.
The walls were sky blue with sheer white drapes blowing gently in the breeze, beyond which lay a view of the water.
But by far, the more heart-stopping view was right in front of him. “Ali,” he said, his voice low and gruff. He wanted this. Christ, he wanted this. But…
She shut the bedroom door, leaning back against it to smile at him. “You look like you’re facing some sort of forbidden fruit.”
Truer than she could have imagined. He knew damn well that being with a man meant something to her. Lots of things meant something to her. He admired that about her—greatly—especially since he wasn’t feeling much for anyone or anything these days.
She could change that, a small voice inside him said, if you let her. He opened his mouth with no idea what he was going to say, but she pushed off the door and came close, pressing a finger against his lips. “Shh a minute,” she whispered. “I just want to see something…”
And then she went up on tiptoes and kissed him again.
He heard himself groan, and then his arms tightened around her as he opened his mouth wider on hers, willing to let her lead, to let her take this wherever she wanted to go.
She kissed him back, deeper, and his heart started to pound because he knew exactly where she wanted this to go.
Same place he did. Still, he shouldn’t let it happen. He shouldn’t…
And yet he couldn’t bring himself to pull away. Just one more taste, he thought. One more touch. His hands skimmed up her back, bared by her halter dress, and she arched into him seeking more.
God. God, she was so sweet, her lips clinging to his, her fingers digging into his arms like he was her anchor. And when she moaned and rubbed up against him, he knew.
He was in trouble. Deep trouble.
He’d been fantasizing about her, just like this, melting in his arms, taking everything he gave her and wanting more still. The reality of it was even better than the fantasy. She was warm and soft and eager. His. A ridiculous thought that didn’t stop him from taking, from slanting his mouth over hers more fully and cupping her breasts, sliding his thumbs over her pebbled nipples. He wanted her in his mouth, every part of her, and was tugging on the tie at the back of her neck toward that very goal when someone rang the doorbell.
They broke apart and stared at each other.
“Wait here,” he said, and gently nudged her aside to open the bedroom door.
He took his time walking through the house so as to not open the door with a full-blown hard-on. But looking through the peephole took care of that.
Ted Marshall stood on his doorstep.
Ali followed Luke through the house and then went still when he opened the front door.
Teddy stood there in a business suit that, unlike Zach’s, fit him perfectly.
“What are you still doing here?” he asked her, looking just as shocked as Ali.
What was she doing here? “Oh no. You first,” she said, going for polite, but not quite making it.
“I’m looking for my backup cell phone,” Teddy said. “I was going to ask the new tenant if he’d found it.”
“You sure you don’t want to accuse me of stealing it?” Ali asked, not even in the realm of polite now.
Luke slid a hand to the nape of her neck.
Right. She had no idea if Zach could defend premeditated murder. “You might want to close your eyes,” she said to Luke, “so that you don’t have to testify against me.”
“Oh for crissake,” Teddy grumbled. “For the last time, you were the only one in my office who had a motive.” He pulled off his expensive reflector aviator sunglasses, the ones she’d used to think made him look so hot, and stared at her. “So what’s going on here anyway? And what’s wrong with you? You’re all…flushed.”
Extremely aware of her kiss-swollen lips and just-made-out hair, Ali stormed off to the kitchen, opened the junk drawer, and—shock—found Teddy’s spare phone. Grabbing it, she slammed the drawer and brought it to the front door. “I didn’t steal it, and for the millionth time, I didn’t steal that money either.”