Excerpt: Just A Kiss
JENNA COOPER SCANNED the restaurant’s lobby and bar again. Tonight would be her first girls’ night out since her best friend, Darci Farraday, had become engaged to Nate Davenport last month, and they had much to discuss. Like what Jenna should do about her search for a sex buddy. Make that what she should do about her fantasy man, Luke Sinclair.
No, not good. Mentioning Luke and sex buddy in the same sentence again would only add more fuel to Darci’s Cupid fire, and Jenna had already given the Cupid wannabe enough arrows to sling today.
Tired of waiting and a little worried, Jenna decided to call Darci to see if she was on her way. As she reached for her cell phone, a large, warm hand slid along her arm. Startled, she looked at the hand, then at the man.
Why was he here? And why did he always have to look so good?
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought Nate said you and Darci had plans tonight.”
“We did…we do.” She looked away from the way his dark brown pants rode low on his lean hips, and how his loose, short sleeved, black shirt couldn’t hide his muscular chest and biceps. “You know Darci, she’s always late. What are you doing here?”
Realization hit her with hurricane force.
She’d been set up.
Hadn’t she told Darci just this morning that she didn’t want Luke for a no-strings boy-toy? Okay, so she did, but still. Her friend knew she wanted no emotional involvement with a man. With Luke’s killer looks and personality, she could see herself having a hard time keeping her emotions under control.
“So you’re meeting Darci,” Luke said. “And I’m supposed to meet Nate. At the same restaurant, at the same time…”
She folded her arms across her chest. “And neither one of them are here.”
“Don’t be crabby,” he said with a grin.
She wanted to melt. Luke had the sexiest smile. “I’m not crabby. I’m starving.”
He shrugged. “So let’s eat.”
Before she could reply, the hostess approached. “Jenna, party of two?”
“That’s us,” Luke said, took Jenna’s hand, and followed the hostess.
After they made their way to the table, Jenna scooted into the leather booth. The restaurant’s dim lighting, along with the sultry jazz music playing, made for a cozy, romantic setting. But this wasn’t a date, it was a set-up. And why didn’t Darci’s matchmaking seem to bother Luke? Probably because they were friends. Or maybe he felt sorry for her, which would be the worst-case scenario. She’d rather be home alone, rearranging her closets, than go on a pity date. Talk about humiliating.
Their server placed a basket of rolls on the table and asked, “Would you care for a drink, or perhaps I can help you choose a bottle of wine?”
“Jenna, what would you like?” Luke asked.
“Want to share a bottle of Pinot Grigio?” Pity date or not, at this point, she couldn’t jump up and leave without being rude. Besides, she honestly didn’t want to go home yet. She’d take whatever time she could with Luke. He was a wicked combination of everything she wanted in a man, along with everything she didn’t: sexy and smart, all pluses. Player and heartbreaker, all negatives. He, and guys like him, were the main reason she was searching for a boy-toy to play with for the rest of the summer. She missed sex, but not the relationship drama.
As the server filled their glasses, Luke watched her. His deliberate stare unnerved her, intensified the feelings she’d fought hard to ignore since first meeting him. She wanted him, regardless of his past, regardless of their future.
But would he want you if he knew about your past?
Luke raised his glass. “To us.”
Had the heat wave plaguing Cleveland messed with his head? There was no ‘us’.
“You mean, to us getting even with Darci and Nate. If you haven’t figured it out yet, my darling friend has a bit of a Cupid complex and is always trying—”
“About that.” He gave her a guilty smile. “This wasn’t Darci’s idea, it was mine.”
First the cryptic toast. Now he was admitting to intentionally switching places with Darci? None of this made any sense. In the four months she’d known him, he’d never once shown any interest in her. Zilch. Nada.
Confused, she asked, “What are you talking about? Why would you switch places with Darci?”
He slid his hand over hers, then rubbed his thumb along her knuckles. “Answer me honestly…if I had asked you out to dinner, would you have accepted?”
“I…of course, we’re friends.”
“Yes, but what if I told you I wanted more.”
More? Luke wasn’t a relationship kind of guy. As a sex buddy, though, he’d be the perfect man for the job. A known commitment-phobe and player, he’d guarantee her hot sex with no strings. And because they were friends, she wouldn’t have to worry about him treating her like crap. Could he actually be proposing what she’d hoped for? Comfortable, compatible, no-strings sex without a messy relationship?
Unsure, she drew in a deep breath and carefully weighed her words. “I think more could be nice, depending on what more means to you.”
He grinned and twined his fingers through hers. “Okay, we can play it safe. How much do you know about me?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Come on, don’t give me that BS. I know women. I know they talk. And I know Nate. I’m sure between him and Darci—”
“I don’t need either of them to tell me about the kind of man you are, if that’s what you’re implying. Because I already know you’re a great guy. Career-driven, hard-working, generous, you’re loyal to your family and friends, volunteer your time…am I missing something?”
“I’m the one who’s afraid of missing something.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “I set you up tonight because I worried you might not go out with me if I asked you.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry about that, and I hope you’re not mad, but I wanted to have a chance to talk. Alone.”
“I’m not mad. I guess I just don’t understand why.”
He blew out a deep breath. “I want you.”
Her stomach somersaulted. You wanted this, she reminded herself. No-strings sex. No emotional involvement. But could she maintain that kind of attitude with Luke?
The hunger in his eyes sent a shock of excitement straight to her core. He leaned forward, she did the same. The table stood in the way of her melting into every hot male inch of his hard body.
“I’m not the greatest catch.”
So not true.
“I’m sure you’ve heard how I am…was with women.”
She nodded. “What you do and whoever you do it with isn’t any of my business.”
“That’s what I like about you. You’re always ready to accept people for who they are. I’m no saint. And I know I’ve been with a lot of women…” He took both of her hands in his. “I want to date you. Exclusively.”
He might as well have poured ice water down her dress. She hadn’t expected him to say anything that hinted at dating. Sex, you bet. But dating? Exclusively? No way.
She didn’t want to date. Dating led to emotions she didn’t have time for. It also led to heartbreak. Something she wouldn’t allow, especially after the way her last relationship had ended. She cleared her throat and attempted to pull her hands from his, but he held her firm.
“For the record, I haven’t been with anyone since we met. I haven’t wanted to…because of you.”
Aliens must have taken control of Luke’s mind. Never in a million years would she have expected this notorious commitment-phobe to want to date her exclusively, or even admit that he hadn’t had sex in four months.
“You’re gorgeous and fun and probably way too nice for a guy like me, but I’d love to have a chance.”
“Is this how you usually ask out a woman?” she asked, still dumfounded.
He shook his head and chuckled. “No, but I’ve never met a woman like you. And I want to be completely honest.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ve wanted to ask you out a dozen times since we’ve met, but because of my reputation, I thought for sure you’d take everything I said or did as a way to get in your pants—not that I don’t want to.”
His reputation? What would he say if she’d told him her reputation had been just as bad as his? That nice, chaste, and wholesome were not words people from her past would have used to describe her? A nervous bubble of laughter caught in her throat. “So you want to get in my pants, huh?”
“Honestly? Yeah, I do. But only when the time is right. I want us to date. We’re friends and you have no idea how much I value that. I respect you and because of that respect, I don’t want to screw things up with sex.”
“Okay, so let’s get this straight. You want to date, but leave out the physical side of things.”
“Right. For now. Until when?”
He frowned. “I guess until I can prove to you that I can be in a monogamous relationship?”
“Is that a question or an answer? Never mind. And then what?”
“Hell, Jenna, I don’t know.” Luke released a deep sigh. Damn, this wasn’t going the way he’d planned. “I’m not going to lie,” he continued. “I told you I want you. Every inch.” Man, did he ever. When he’d first met her, he’d been immediately attracted to her long legs, slender curves, and bewitching hazel eyes. But as he’d come to know her, he’d realized she was more than a gorgeous package, and nothing like the manipulative, promiscuous women of his past.
Sensing he needed to give her space, he released her hand and leaned into the booth. “I didn’t bring up my past relationships to give you some sort of sexual resume. Trust me. It’s not something I’m proud of. Like I said, I want honesty between us. You’re a good woman. You deserve a good man. I want to prove I can be that man without letting sex get in the way. If you’ll allow me.”
She didn’t say anything. Instead, she tossed a lock of blond hair over her shoulder, then crossed her arms over her chest. A cute little L dimpled between her eyebrows, and her lips twisted in an adorable pout. She didn’t look pissed, but she didn’t look pleased, either.
Maybe he’d moved too fast, too soon. He hadn’t planned on it, but she’d had this vindictive look in her eyes when she’d spoken about Darci and Nate setting them up, and he couldn’t let the blame fall on their shoulders. After all, he’d been the one who had convinced Darci to let him take her place tonight.
Then there was Jenna’s sex buddy stuff.
Earlier today, while he and Jenna had been at Darci’s, helping her finish a few remodeling jobs before she put her house on the market, he’d overheard Jenna and Darci talking. Jenna had flat-out told Darci she didn’t want a relationship but a boy-toy, a friend with benefits. Although shocked, he’d understood where Jenna was coming from. She was working on her Ph.D. in psychology while counseling kids at St. Michael’s Youth Center and didn’t have time for a serious relationship.
As he’d listened—ear glued to the woodwork—he’d nearly fallen through the open door when Darci had suggested him as a prime candidate for being Jenna’s sex buddy. He’d held his breath, waiting for her answer, then choked on disappointment when Jenna had quickly knocked him out of the running, saying something about him never showing any interest in her.
Because of his interest in her, he’d kept his hands to himself and his eyes off her killer curves, telling himself that doing the friendship thing first was the right way to proceed with a woman like her. He swore she didn’t have a promiscuous bone in her body, and since he suspected she knew about his reputation, he wanted to earn her trust. Afraid if he moved too fast, she might think he was only after a one-night stand. She deserved better than that, deserved better than some no-strings boy-toy too.
She finally unfolded her arms, then reached for her wine. Before she took a sip, she puffed her bangs. Perfect. That little habit of hers, something he’d noticed when they’d first met, meant she was dwelling and contemplating.
He reached for his own glass. So she wanted no-strings sex. No emotional ties. And he’d offered her the opposite.
He wanted sex too, but he wanted to tangle her up in his heart before they tangled up the sheets. He needed to. He’d never had a relationship without sex as the primary focus. Now that he thought about it, sex had always been the sole focus. And once the fun had ended, or his latest conquest had demanded more from him, he’d always headed for the door in search of his next playmate.
He’d grown tired of playing the scene, of weaving in and out of relationships. Like Jenna, he was meeting his goals and had his career on track, now he needed to get his personal life in line. No more sexual playmates. He wanted the real deal, a real relationship. Jenna was smart, funny, gorgeous and goal-oriented. She was also unique and completely different from the promiscuous, shallow women he was used to dating. And he wanted to explore the possibilities of commitment, of the future he could have with Jenna.
* * *
Their server delivered their meals. Jenna ignored the food and instead stared at Luke. The perfect sex buddy wanted her, only minus the sex. Now what was she supposed to do?
She’d carved a perfect future for herself, and Luke was about to upend it with his relationship talk. No sex would lead to other ways for them to bide their time. Long talks and shared dreams would take their friendship to a new level of intimacy. Could she handle that?
Not without bending the rules.
Luke ran a hand through his hair. She stared at his fingers with envy. How she would love to twine her own hands through his thick dark hair until it stood on end as she kissed him with all the pent-up sexual energy she’d been hiding. She released a deep sigh, then quickly caught her breath as an idea struck her. She couldn’t stop the grin tugging at her lips because she’d just realized a tantalizing way to bend Luke’s no-sex rule.
Suddenly famished, she picked up the fork and knife, then sliced into the filet. “Okay, so you want to prove you can be in a relationship without sex, right?”
“Yes, exactly,” he replied without picking up his silverware.
She shrugged. “But that wouldn’t really be much different from what we already have. We’d simply be friends who don’t have sex with each other, let alone anyone else.”
She savored a slice of the rare meat before washing it down with a sip of wine, then dabbed her lips with her napkin. “Intimacy and affection are important in a relationship, and while I understand what you’re getting at, I need to have a certain level of affection.” She cut into the filet. “We can have that, you know…without sex.”
“How would we do that?”
He grinned. The playful twinkle in his green eyes told her she was on the right track.
He finally picked up his fork and knife, then dove into the sixteen-ounce Porterhouse in front of him. “Kissing is good.”
“Kissing is very good.” She liked how the conversation had turned. She liked Luke. A lot. She trusted him, not necessarily with her heart, but with her body. She wanted to be with him. Yes, for sex, but also because she loved the respect he was showing her.
Although she did miss sex, she’d missed kissing and cuddling even more. Sex was nice, but if she didn’t own a vibrator, she would never have known what it was that made your eyes roll back and your body surge with ecstasy. Now that she really thought about it, she’d very much like to take Luke up on his exclusive dating, no-sex relationship. It sounded safe and fun, and besides, he’d agreed to kissing, but he’d never specified exactly where those kisses could be placed. And she could think of a few provocative places she’d love to kiss Luke. After that, he probably wouldn’t last more than a week with his no-sex, kissing-only rule. She’d have her sex buddy and still be able to remain emotionally detached.
“This is really weird,” she said, plucking a roll from the basket.
Luke reached for his wine. “How so?”
“I feel like we should sign a contract.”
“You’re right. This isn’t my most romantic moment.” He sent her a smile that had her toes curling. “To be honest, I hadn’t planned on asking you to date me until later. I wanted to wine and dine you first. Show you how special you are to me, then take you home, and on your front porch, deliver the speech I had practiced.”
If he kept talking like this, she’d never be able to keep her emotions at bay. None of the guys she used to date would have ever put so much thought into asking her out. Their minds were on getting naked, not romance. “Were you going to serenade me, too?” she asked, making light of a situation she didn’t know how to deal with, and it worked.
Luke laughed and pushed his plate aside. “Not unless you wanted to lose the windows in your house and have every stray dog come running.”
“I take it you can’t sing.”
“Only in the shower.”
The image of him naked, water cascading down his lean, muscular body, had butterflies doing a little jig in the pit of her stomach. “Maybe you’ll show me sometime.”
With the pad of his thumb, he circled the rim of the wine glass he’d been holding. “If we’re showering together, singing will be the last thing on my mind.”
Warm fuzzies spiraled through her belly and tingled their way throughout her body until she felt dizzy and giddy with panic and passion. “Not unless you retract this no-sex rule of yours.”
He sucked in a breath. “Good point.” Leaning forward, he grasped her hand. “I really need to prove to you that I want more for us than casual sex. You’re special to me and deserve special treatment.” He rubbed his fingers over hers. “So, will you give me a chance?”
She wanted to. She also wanted to shove their plates out of the way, dive across the table and straddle his lap. Kiss him senseless and unleash every erotic fantasy she’d had about him over the last four months. Instead, she twined her fingers in his and nodded. “I’m game.”
A big grin spread across his kissable lips.
“Keep in mind,” she began, “I’ll abide by your no-sex rule because I get it. I get you. But if we’re being honest, I haven’t had sex in a long time, so don’t be surprised by how much I love to kiss.”
Heat simmered in his gaze.
“Or the places I love to kiss.”
At that moment, their server approached and Jenna smothered a smile with her napkin, because Luke looked as if he’d just signed a deal with the devil. Yeah, she’d date him. Being exclusive wasn’t a big deal to her considering she rarely dated. But for him, though…
She wasn’t testing him. Not really. Yet, a part of her looked forward to seeing just how far she could push the limits as to how intimate they could become without sex.
While the server cleared their plates, Jenna imagined some kinky kissing scenarios, then out of nowhere, her conscience reared its ugly head.
He wanted honesty between them.
As a trained psychologist, she knew guilt served absolutely no purpose. Guilt sidetracked true feelings and manipulated motivations. She’d had professors claim that guilt wasn’t even an emotion. What a crock of crap. She felt highly emotional right now, and all those feelings were zeroing in on plain old guilt.
Her clinical mind knew she had no reason to feel any fault or self-reproach for not being totally honest with Luke. Okay, so he’d confessed to being a player and thought she was Little Miss Prim and Proper. Still, she saw no reason to humiliate herself by telling him all about her wild and wicked past, that she’d mistaken sex for love and romance, and hadn’t always treated her body or herself with respect. There was no point in confessing anything. At least not tonight, and not until she saw where whatever they’d just started ended up going.
* * *
Part of the plan Luke had concocted with Darci had entailed Jenna taking a cab to the restaurant. That way, he’d be able to drive her home. But his plan had backfired on him because as he pulled into Jenna’s driveway, he struggled with exactly how he should end the evening. Should he kiss her? He snuck a peek at Jenna’s long legs. The way she sat, her black dress had hiked up and was displaying plenty of toned, tanned skin. Damn, how he’d love to feel those thighs wrapped around his waist…
He shifted into PARK. No, kissing would be bad. Kissing would lead to touching. Touching would lead to stroking. Stroking would lead to—he cut the ignition, then climbed out of the SUV. As he approached the passenger door to help Jenna, she’d already begun to scoot off her seat.
Her dress raised mid-thigh and he swore he caught a quick glimpse of her panties—hot pink. He averted his gaze and offered his hand.
“Thanks for the ride home,” she said, and led him along the brick walkway to her front porch.
As she unlocked the door, he hesitated on the bottom step.
“Want to come in for a nightcap?”
He wanted to. Hell, he wanted to come, make her come. Make her scream his name loud enough to wake the neighbors.
“I, uh…” His body and mind battled to make the right decision. If he went inside, he’d have an opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with Jenna. He was a changed man, right? He was now in an exclusive relationship not based on sex.
Except Jenna wanted sex.
When she leaned against the porch column and crossed her arms under her chest, the movement gave him an ample view of her cleavage.
“I better head home,” he said, not trusting himself where Jenna was concerned. She could easily sway him from his no-sex rule with a simple bat of her long lashes. He needed to keep his cool and follow through with his original plan: exclusive dating, with only kissing allowed.
She moved off the porch. “What’s wrong?” Between her heels and the concrete step, she stood at eye level with him. Her perfume, a potent mixture of wildflowers and sunshine, made him want to pull her close and had his senses alert.
“Nothing. It’s late, and I have to go into the office tomorrow.”
“On a Sunday? You’re either dedicated to your job, or avoiding another day of working on Darci’s house.”
Not only was he dedicated, he had an opportunity with a client that would take him straight to partnership by the end of the summer. He couldn’t afford to let anything screw up his chances to become the primary accountant for Margie Benson, owner of Benson Steel & Fabricating. During the past ten years, the Cleveland-based company had grown in worth from two million to two hundred million dollars. Margie had expanded the operation into Detroit and St. Louis, and was now looking at the accounting firm where he worked, Dryscal & Myers, and specifically at him, to take over their auditing program. A huge achievement if he landed the account, and one that would not go unnoticed by the firm’s board of directors.
He frowned and thought about what Jenna had said. “Darci told me all she had left to work on was the kitchen.” He and Darci had been discussing the possibility of him purchasing her old Victorian home since she’d move in with Nate, and he’d suggested that she leave the kitchen alone. He’d rather remodel it himself and didn’t expect Darci to pay for the extensive makeover he had in mind.
“Yeah, but the yard needs a little TLC. I’m heading over in the morning to help.”
He glanced at the manicured flowerbeds surrounding Jenna’s walkway and front porch. “Well, considering what you’ve done with your own yard, I can see why Darci wants your expertise.”
She released a low, breathy chuckle. “I can’t take the credit. I pay the kids down the street to do it. I just happen to be a born supervisor.” She cocked her head. “You sure you’re okay?”
She was sweet, and sexy, and he needed to leave before he did or said something stupid. “Yeah.” He hesitated, before tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I had a great time.”
She smiled. “Me too.”
He thumbed toward his Explorer. “I should probably go.”
Her smile faltered. She glanced at his mouth. “So…thanks again for everything.”
He stared at her lips. Just a kiss. That’s all he wanted. One taste of her and then he would leave. But would one kiss be enough?
Forcing his gaze away from temptation, he cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t be too long at the office. Would you like to go boating tomorrow afternoon?”
Her eyes widened and she smiled. “I’d love to.”
“Great. I’ll pick you up around three?”
“Sounds good. I told Darci she only has me for a few hours anyway.”
“Great,” he said because he didn’t know what the hell else to say. He also couldn’t help looking at those lush, kissable lips again. Kissing was allowed. Maybe if he simply got their first kiss out of the way, he could relax a little.
Right, keep telling yourself that.
Then he caught her staring at his mouth again. She licked her lips, and something inside him snapped. Without thinking about the consequences, he reached for her, brushed his palm against her soft cheek until he cupped her head and drew her close. So close, her scent would linger on his skin and clothes for the rest of the night. He gave her a second to pull away from him, if she wanted. Instead, she swayed forward, nudged her nose against his, and parted her lips. Her warm breath fanned across his mouth and he couldn’t help himself.
He grazed his lips along hers and swore he’d never felt anything more erotic in his life when she did the same. The soft touch, the lingering taste, as if they both wanted to sear this moment to memory, spread through him.
Then she nipped his lower lip.
He lost it. Crushed his mouth against her parted lips and drove his tongue deep. When she moaned, he gripped her head with both hands and possessed her mouth until they were breathless.
He’d meant to be gentle, had wanted their first kiss to be chaste and simple. But that little sexy tug she’d given him had shot his willpower to hell.
His lips stung, hers were swollen and moist. Unable to resist her tempting mouth he leaned in for another kiss.
Blinding fluorescent lights from Jenna’s next door neighbor put them on stage. Squinting, Luke quickly stepped back and shaded his eyes. Her neighbor had lights like the Ohio Penitentiary and he was waiting for sirens, guard dogs and maybe even an escaped convict to dash across the lawn.
“Everything okay over there?” her neighbor called while leaning from her screen door.
Jenna mumbled something, then shouted, “Everything’s fine, Lucinda. You can douse the lights now.”
Luke continued to see sharp pinpoints of light, even after Lucinda did as Jenna requested. He blinked several times and once he’d regained normal vision, he caught Jenna giving him a shy smile. She was as sweet as melting ice cream on a hot summer day, and tasted even better. He wanted to lick her up, taste every inch of her until he knew every intimate spot like the back of his hand. Found every freckle and committed it to memory.
It was probably good that Jenna’s neighbor had taken that particular moment to light up the neighborhood. Otherwise, he might have thrown his no-sex rule straight to the curb.
“Sorry about Lucinda. She’s a little nosey and a little overprotective.”
He looked next door. “A little? I just hope she doesn’t flip on her porch lights too often. She’s using enough wattage to suck the electricity from the rest of the neighborhood, maybe even half of Cleveland.”
“Stop.” Jenna laughed. “Leave the helpless old woman alone.”
“Helpless? I was waiting for her to pull a shotgun on me.”
“The only thing Lucinda could attack you with is her cats and a frying pan.”
Sliding a long strand of hair between his fingers, he gave the lock a gentle tug and leaned forward. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Maybe next time we should take our kiss inside,” she suggested, and inched closer.
As she grazed her lips against his, he realized he had two choices. One, he could kiss her again and in the process convince himself that it was okay to head inside for a nightcap that would most definitely lead to sex. Or two, go home and take a cold shower. Option one appealed to him the most, but if he gave into Jenna’s friend with benefits crap, their relationship would end up being based on sex. Just like all his relationships.
Instead of giving into what his body desired, he gave her a long lingering kiss that bordered on chaste. Almost. The sexual energy between them could probably power up Lucinda’s porch lights. With reluctance and regret for what could have been tonight, he stepped away. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
While he still held a shred of willpower, he forced his feet to move toward his vehicle. As he backed out of Jenna’s driveway, he tried hard not to think about their kiss. He tried even harder not to think about what she might wear tomorrow. The harder he thought, the harder he became.
“Damn,” he muttered. “What the hell did I get myself into?”