‘Someone bail on you?’
The low voice sent a quiver through her, making every nerve-ending tingle. She knew whose it was. He’d been sitting at the other end of the bar and he’d been watching her since she walked in.
She’d noticed him straight away—hard not to, with those killer looks and a body to die for—but she wasn’t looking for that kind of trouble so she’d ignored him, even though she’d been aware of him in every cell of her body. She slid her phone into the back pocket of her jeans and tilted her head back to meet his eyes.
Close to, she could see they were blue—a pale, ice blue, strangely piercing and unsettling.
There were crow’s feet at the corners that might have been from laughter, or spending a lot of time outdoors squinting into the sun. Both, maybe. He had that healthy outdoor look about him, a sort of raw masculinity that sent another shiver through her body, and she lowered her eyes a little and focused instead on a mouth that was just made for kissing…
No! No way. She pulled herself together sharply. She was done with that—with all of it. She went back to the unsettling eyes.
‘Is that your best shot? I’ve had better chat-up lines from a ten-year-old.’
Her voice sounded more brittle than she’d meant it to, but he just laughed, a soft huff of wry humour which reeled her in just a teensy bit, and those lips tilted into a smile that creased the corners of his eyes and made them suddenly less threatening.
‘Sorry. I wasn’t trying to hit on you. I just read the expression on your face when you answered your phone. Sort of “so what do I do now?” which is pretty much what I was trying to work out myself.’
Unlikely. Why would anyone that gorgeous have any difficulty working out what to do on a Saturday night? Not that she was interested, or cared at all about this total stranger, but that sinful mouth quirked again and something inside her lurched.
‘I take it your other half’s busy tonight, then,’ she said, telling herself it was utterly irrelevant since this was going nowhere, but his mouth firmed and for a moment she didn’t think he was going to answer. Then it twitched in a rueful smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘No other half,’ he said quietly, and his voice had a tinge of sadness which made her believe him. ‘The friends I’ve been staying with had something else on tonight, and I’ve got to hang on till tomorrow so I’m just killing time in a strange town, really. How about you?’
It begged an answer, and not even she was that churlish. ‘I was meeting a friend,’ she offered reluctantly, ‘but she’s been called into work.’
‘Ah. My friends are having way more fun than that. They’ve gone to a party, so I was well and truly trumped.’
He smiled again, a wry, easy grin this time, and hitched his lean frame onto the bar stool beside her and caught the barman’s eye. ‘So, can I get you a drink? Since we both seem to have time on our hands?’
She did, but she didn’t want to spend it with a man, and particularly not a man with trouble written all over him. She was sworn off that type for life—and probably every other type, since she was such a lousy judge of character. And gorgeous though he was, it wasn’t enough to weaken her resolve. Out of the frying pan and all that. But she had to give him full marks for persistence, and at least he was single. That was an improvement.
He was still waiting for her answer, the barman poised in suspense, and she gave a tiny shrug. She could have one drink. What harm could it do? Especially if she kept her head for a change. And it wasn’t as if she had anything else to do apart from tackling the mountain of laundry in her bedroom.
She let herself meet his eyes again, those curious pale eyes that locked with hers, beautiful but unnerving, holding hers against her will. They made her feel vulnerable—raw and exposed, as if they could see things about her that no one was meant to see.
Which makes having a drink with him a really bad idea.
She mentally deleted the name of the lethal cocktail she might have shared with Petra and switched to something sensible. Something safe.
‘I’ll have sparkling water, please.’
One eyebrow quirked, but he nodded to the barman and asked for two. So he wasn’t drinking, either.
‘I’m Sam, by the way,’ he said, offering his hand.
‘I’m Kate,’ she replied, and, because he hadn’t really left her any choice, she put her hand in his and felt it engulfed in something warm and nameless that brought her whole body to life. Their eyes clashed again, and after a breathless second he released his grip and she eased away and shifted on the bar stool, resisting the urge to scrub her hand against her thigh to wipe the tingle off her palm.
‘So, Kate, how come you’re living in Yoxburgh?’
‘What makes you think I’m not passing through like you?’
His mouth twitched. ‘On the way to where? It’s stuck out on a limb. And anyway, the barman knows you. He greeted you like an old friend when you walked in.’
His smile was irresistible, and she felt her lips shift without permission. ‘Hardly an old friend, but fair cop. I do live here. Why is that so hard to believe?’
He shrugged, his eyes still crinkled at the corners. ‘Because you’re young, you’re—’ he glanced at her ring finger pointedly ‘—apparently single, and it’s just a sleepy little backwater on the edge of nowhere?’
It wasn’t, not really, but it had a safeness about it which was why she’d chosen it, exactly because it felt like a quiet backwater and she’d thought it might keep her heart out of trouble. Except it hadn’t worked.
She ignored the comment about her being single and focused on Yoxburgh. ‘Actually, it’s a great place, not nearly as quiet as you’d think, and anyway I love being by the sea.’
‘Yeah, me, too. It’s been great staying up here for the last couple of days. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed the sea.’
‘So how long are you here for?’ she asked, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to be showing an interest.‘Only till tomorrow morning. I spotted a boat for sale just as I was leaving this afternoon, and the guy can’t see me till the morning, so I’m staying over to see if I can strike a deal.’
‘What kind of a boat?’ she asked, telling herself she was just being polite and wasn’t really interested in the boat or anything else about him, like where he was staying or how he was going to pass the next twelve hours—
‘An old sailing boat. A wooden Peter Duck ketch—’ He broke off with a grin. ‘I’ve lost you, haven’t I?’
‘Yup.’ She had to laugh at his wry chuckle. ‘Go on.’
‘Nah, I won’t bore you. If you don’t know anything about Swallows and Amazons it won’t mean a thing. Anyway, it needs work, but that’s fine. It’ll help pass the time, and I’m not afraid of hard physical work.’
She just stopped herself from scanning his body for tell-tale muscles.
‘So what do you do when you’re not rescuing old sailing boats?’ she asked, against her better judgement. Not that she had a better judgement. Her entire life was a testament to that and she was still hurting from the last time she’d crashed and burned, but her tongue obviously hadn’t learned that lesson yet.
He gave a lazy shrug, which distracted her attention from his kissable mouth to those broad, solid shoulders just made for resting her head against.
‘Nothing exciting. I spend most of my life trapped indoors governed by unmeetable targets, and I sail whenever I get a chance, which isn’t nearly often enough. Hence the boat. Your turn.’
‘Me?’ She let out a slightly strangled laugh and shifted on the bar stool. For some reason, she didn’t want to tell him the truth. Maybe because she was sick of men running their latest symptoms by her or fantasising about her in uniform the second they knew she was a nurse, or maybe something to do with her latest mistake who’d moved on to someone brainless and overtly sexy when she’d found out he was married and dumped him? Whatever, she opened her mouth and said the first thing that came into her head.
‘I’m a glamour model,’ she lied, and his eyebrows twitched ever so slightly in surprise.
‘Well, that’s a first,’ he murmured, and to his credit he didn’t let his eyes drop and scan her body the way she’d wanted to scan his. ‘Do you enjoy it?’
No. She’d hated it, for the massively short time she’d done it all those years ago, when she’d landed in the real world with a bump. Another mistake, but one forced on her by hunger and desperation.
‘It pays the bills,’ she said. Or it had, way back then.
He didn’t bother to control his eyebrows this time. ‘Lots of things pay the bills.’
‘It’s not my place to disapprove. It’s none of my business. I just can’t imagine why someone with a brain would want to do it.’
‘Maybe I don’t have one?’
He snorted softly and picked up his glass. ‘I don’t think that’s quite true.’ He sat back, propping his elbow on the bar and slouching back against it. ‘So, when you’re not cavorting around in not a lot, what do you do for fun?’
She shrugged. ‘Meet up with friends, read, go for walks, bake cakes and take them into work—’
‘Cakes? You take cakes to the studio?’
Oh, hell, she was such a hopeless liar. ‘Why not?’ she flannelled airily. ‘Everyone likes cake.’
‘I thought models starved themselves.’
Ah. ‘That’s fashion models,’ she said, ad-libbing like crazy. ‘One reason why I could never do it. Glamour models are expected to have…’
She dwindled to a halt, kicking herself for engineering such a ridiculous conversation, and he finished the sentence for her.
‘Curves?’ he murmured, his voice lingering on the word and making her body flush slowly from the toes up.
His eyes did drop this time, and she felt the urge to suck in her stomach. She had no idea why. He wasn’t looking at her stomach. He was way too busy studying her cleavage.
His eyes flicked away, and he drained his glass and set it down with a little clunk. ‘Have you eaten? All this talk of cake has reminded me I’m starving.’
She was all set to lie again, but she was ravenous and if she didn’t eat soon she was going to fall off the bar stool. Not a good look.
‘No, I haven’t eaten. Why?’
‘Because I was debating getting something off the bar menu here, or going to a restaurant on my own, which frankly doesn’t appeal. So what’s it to be? Solitary scampi and chips here, or shall we go somewhere rather nicer and work on your curves? It would be a shame to let them fade away.’
No contest. She was starving and her fridge was utterly empty. ‘Just dinner, no subtext,’ she warned, just to be on the safe side after his comment about her curves, and he gave a strangled laugh.
‘Sheesh, I don’t work that fast,’ he said with a grin. ‘So, any suggestions for somewhere nice?’
Nice? Only one really great place sprang to mind, and judging by the cashmere jumper under the battered but undoubtedly expensive leather jacket he could afford it, but James and Connie were at Zacharelli’s, and the last thing she needed was her boss asking questions on Monday morning. And anyway, they didn’t stand a chance without a reservation and they were like gold dust.
His phone beeped and he pulled it out with a murmured apology and scrolled around for a moment. It gave her time to study him, to notice little things that she hadn’t registered before, like the strength in his hands, the fact that he took care of them, the nails clipped and scrupulously clean. His hair was short, but not too short, and his jaw was stubbled, making her hand itch to feel the bristles rasp against her skin, right before she threaded her fingers through that dark, glossy hair and drew his head down to kiss his delectably decadent mouth…
‘Sorry. I’ve turned it off now,’ he told her, shifting his hips so he could slide the phone back into the pocket of his jeans. The movement drew her attention down, and she felt her mouth dry. ‘So, any suggestions?’ he asked.
Her body was screaming with suggestions, but she drowned it out. ‘There’s a nice Chinese restaurant on the front? In fact there are a few good eateries of one sort or another down there, so we should find somewhere with a table.’
‘Well, let’s go and check them out, then.’ He stood up, held a hand out to her to help her off the stool and she took it, struck first by the old fashioned courtesy of the gesture and then, as their skin met for the second time, by the lightning bolt of heat that slammed through her body at the brief contact.
She all but snatched her hand away, and then a moment later she felt a light touch over the small of her back as he ushered her through the crowd towards the door. She fastened her short jacket but his hand was just below it, the warmth spreading out to the furthest reaches of her body until there wasn’t a single cell that wasn’t tingling.
Oh, why hadn’t she said no? This was such a mistake!
‘Walk or drive? My car’s just round the corner at the hotel if we need it.’
‘Oh—walk. I know it’s cold, but it’s a nice evening for January, and it’s not far.’ And the confines of a car would be way too intimate and dangerous.
‘OK. You’ll have to lead the way. I’m in your hands.’
She hauled in a breath and set off towards the sea front, and he fell in beside her, matching the length of his stride to hers as they strolled down through the town centre, their breath frosting on the cold night air.
‘So what’s Yoxburgh like to live in?’ he asked casually, peering through the shop windows as if he could find the answer in their unlit depths.
‘OK. Quiet, mostly, but there’s a lot going on even so and there’s an interesting vibe. I like it. It suits me.’
He turned back to eye her searchingly. ‘You wouldn’t rather be in London?’
No way. She’d lived in London all her life, worked there while she was training, and hated every second of it. ‘No. You?’
‘Oh, no, I hate it. I’ve been working there for a while now and I can’t get away quick enough. I need a seaside town with good sailing like the one I grew up in.’
‘You’d love it here, then. Lots of yachting types.’
He shot her a grin. ‘I don’t know that I’d call myself a “yachting” type, exactly. I just like messing about in boats. I was reared on Swallows and Amazons. Free spirits and all that. I guess I’m just trying to recapture my misspent youth.’
She laughed and shook her head. ‘I bet you were a holy terror growing up.’
His mouth twitched. ‘My parents would have an opinion on that but they didn’t know the half of it. The most important lesson I learned in childhood was that you can break any rule you like, just so long as you don’t get caught. What about you?’
What about her? She’d broken every rule going during her own disastrous childhood, but she wasn’t going into all that with him, and certainly not on a first date. She forced herself to meet his eyes. ‘I had my ups and downs.’
‘Didn’t we all?’ he said with an easy laugh. ‘I got sent to boarding school when I was ten.’
Which just underlined the differences between them, she thought. Not that it changed anything, because as soon as they’d finished dinner she’d make her excuses and leave, and that would be it.
She stopped outside the restaurant. ‘Here we are, but it looks pretty busy.’
‘The town’s buzzing,’ he said, sounding surprised.
‘Saturday night, though. It’s quieter mid-week. There’s the café next door if they don’t have a table here—they do great pastries and really good coffee, so we could give it a try— Oh, hang on, those people are getting up. We could be in luck.’
He opened the restaurant door for her, and they were shown to the window table that had been vacated by the couple.
‘That was good timing,’ he said. ‘I’m seriously starving and it smells amazing in here. So what would you recommend?’ he asked, flicking the menu open.
‘They do a good set meal for two, but it’s quite a lot of food. We often stretch it to three. Here.’
She reached over and pointed it out, and he scanned it and nodded. ‘Looks good. Let’s go for that. I’m sure we can manage to do it justice. Do you fancy sharing a bottle of wine as we’re not driving?’
Did she? Could she trust herself not to lose her common sense and do something rash?
‘That would be lovely, but I’ll only have one glass,’ she said, and ignored the little voice that told her it was the thin end of the wedge.
‘That was gorgeous. Thank you. I’ve eaten way too much.’
‘Nah, you need to maintain your curves,’ he said lightly, and looked down at her, at the wide grey eyes that wanted to be wary and didn’t manage it, the slight tilt of her smile, her lips soft and moist and dangerously kissable.
Who was she?
Not a glamour model, of that he was damn sure, but beyond that he knew nothing. Did it matter? He hadn’t been exactly forthcoming to her, either, but hey.
He leant over and kissed her cheek, brushing his lips against the soft, delicate skin, breathing in a lingering trace of scent that teased his senses and made him want more.
‘Thank you for joining me. I hate eating alone.’
‘I’m used to it,’ she said. ‘My flatmate’s moved out and it’s eat alone or starve.’
They fell silent, in that awkward moment when they should have said goodbye and gone their separate ways, but he realised he didn’t want to. Didn’t want to say goodbye, didn’t want to let her go, knowing he’d never see her again.
‘Fancy a stroll along the sea front?’
There was a slight hesitation, and then she smiled. ‘Why not?’ she said, as if she’d answered her own question. ‘I love the sound of the sea at night.’
They fell into step, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to put his arm around her shoulders and draw her up against his side, but he could hear the click of her red stiletto boots against the prom with every step, and it was driving him crazy.
Red shoes, no pants…
The saying echoed in his head, taunting his imagination, and he tried to haul it back into order. They weren’t really shoes anyway, he told himself sternly, more ankle boots, and her underwear was none of his business, but her hip nudged his with every step and it was all he could think about.
They’d walked past the cluster of restaurants and cafés and holiday flats to where the amusements started, but being out of season everything was shut and it was deserted, with nothing and no one to distract him from the click of her red stilettos.
The lights there were dim and spaced far apart, and between them there was a section of the prom that was hardly lit at all, only enough to make out her features as he drew her to a halt.
‘Listen,’ he said, and she tilted her head and listened with him to the soft suck of the waves on the shingle, rhythmic and soothing. In the distance someone laughed, and music blared momentarily as a car passed them and turned the corner, the silence wrapping itself around them again as the music receded.
‘The sea’s quiet tonight,’ she said softly. ‘Sometimes it’s really stormy. I love it then. Wild and dangerous and free.’
‘Mmm.’ He stared down into her eyes, lifting a hand to stroke a stray wisp of hair away from her face. Her skin was soft, cool under his fingertips, and he let them drift down her cheek, settling under her chin and tilting it up towards him as he lowered his head slowly and touched his lips to hers.
She moaned softly and opened her mouth to him, giving him access to the touch of her tongue, the sharp, clean edge of her teeth, the sweet freshness and bitter chocolate of the after-dinner mint teasing his tastebuds as he shifted his head slightly and plundered the depth and heat of her mouth.
His body was already primed by the time he’d spent with her as they’d lingered laughing over their meal, tortured further by the nudge of her hip and the tap-tap-tap of those incredibly sexy little boots on the prom as they’d walked, and now it roared to life.
He drew away, lifting his head from hers, searching her face for clues as his heart pounded and his chest rose and fell with every ragged breath, but it was too dark to read her eyes. He could hear the hitch of her breath, though, feel the quiver in it as she exhaled and her breath drifted over his skin in tiny pulses.
‘Stay with me tonight,’ he said on impulse, and she hesitated for so long he felt the sinking disappointment in his gut; but then she smiled, a wry, sad smile as she lost some internal battle and nodded.
‘Your place or mine?’ she murmured, and his body gave itself a high five.