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Sneak Peek, SWEPT INTO LOVE (The Ryders)

Swept into Love, Steamy Contemporary Romance

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Chapter One

SALLY TUFT AWOKE to a freight train running through her head and the worst cotton mouth she’d ever experienced. She lay on her back, eyes closed, trying to remember what happened last night after the conference she’d attended. Thank God what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, because she didn’t need her boss finding out she got rip-roaring drunk. She rolled onto her side, coming face-to-face with hot whiskey breath. Her eyes flew open and she bolted upright, clutching the sheet to her chest. Her heart pounded wildly as she took in the gorgeous sandy-haired man lying next to her. Oh shit! Shit, shit, shit!

No. This can’t be happening.

She slammed her eyes shut, trying to calm her mounting panic by breathing deeply, but that made her head hurt even worse.

Her eyes opened slowly, roving over Gage Ryder’s scruffy jaw and the full lips she’d fantasized about so many times she should be arrested. This was bad. Very bad. Gage had been her best friend and co-worker since her husband was killed in a skiing accident several years ago. And worse, he was her son’s confidant. The man whom Rusty went to with problems his father was no longer there to help him with.

Her gaze trailed over his broad shoulders and muscular chest as realization set in. She bit her lower lip, holding her breath as she lifted the sheet. Please let me have something on. At least underwear. The pit of her stomach twisted at the sight of her closer-to-forty-than-thirty, less-than-perky bare breasts, and stomach that had never quite regained its elasticity after having her now twenty-year-old son. Oh God!

Gage rolled onto his back, and her eyes were drawn to the formidable bulge lifting the sheets. Look away. Look away.

She couldn’t look away. He’d made his feelings for her clear without ever actually spelling them out. Would he mind if she looked? Oh God! I should mind! She needed to force those desires back into Ignore mode. Closing her eyes and gritting her teeth, she tried to do just that. But the urge to look was too strong, and they popped open again, drinking in every hard inch of him.

His left arm stretched over his head, coming to rest on the pillow. The other reached beneath the sheet and adjusted himself. Her nipples prickled to tight points. Now was not the time to get turned on, but she couldn’t stop staring as he sleepily pushed the sheet down his chest, revealing solid abs she’d seen a million times—but never once in bed. They were sexier than when he was playing basketball or chopping wood to heat his home. Oh God, she loved to watch him chop wood.

Her eyes moved to the other wood in sight. She heard a whimpering sound and realized it came from her. She snapped her mouth shut. She had to get out of there before he woke up and realized what they’d done.

What if he remembered what happened—or didn’t—last night? She was never going to drink again. Not in this lifetime, and definitely not with Gage Ryder.

She clutched the sheet and slid to the edge of the bed, struggling to dredge up memories of last night from the muddled recesses of her mind, but her head was spinning. At least her hangover had taken a backseat to the reality of having slept with Gage. He rolled toward her as she stepped quietly from the bed. The sheet caught beneath him and pulled from around her. She gasped, her hands darting to cover all her private parts as Gage’s amused blue eyes opened and followed her frantic hands. A slow smile crept across his gorgeous face. She needed more hands! She yanked the sheet from the bed and turned around.

“Don’t look!” she yelled as she tried to wrap it around her. “Oh my God. Gage!”

“Sally…?”

“Don’t say a word. Wait. Please tell me we didn’t have sex. Just…” She shook her head and spun around, bringing Gage and all his naked glory into full view. For a second she was struck mute, her jaw hanging open. His thick arousal lay nestled between powerful thighs, on a manicured tuft of dirty-blond hair.

“See something you want?” Gage said with a chuckle, snapping her brain into gear.

“You’re naked!” She spun around again, breathing so hard she feared she might pass out.

“You whipped the sheet off me,” he said far too casually.

I’m naked!”

“I see that, and I prefer you without the sheet.”

“Gage!” She huffed. “Put a pillow over yourself! Cover that thing up.”

He sighed loudly and she heard the rustling of the pillow.

“Okay, Salbird. I’m covered, but given that we’re both naked, I’m pretty sure you got more than an eyeful last night.”

Salbird. The first time he’d called her that they’d been at a party at Danica’s house. Danica was Gage and Sally’s boss at No Limitz Youth Center. In addition to that, she and her husband, Blake, were two of Gage and Sally’s closest friends. As everyone mingled around the party, Gage put a hand on her lower back and whispered, Can I get you a drink, Salbird? He’d flashed that boyish smile of his, and the endearment had stuck. Sometimes he just called her bird. It was a silly endearment, but it sounded magical coming off his lips. To this day it made her feel special in a way nothing else ever had, and though she’d wanted to know why a man she’d only recently met had likened her to a bird, she’d never asked. She didn’t want to spoil the magic. But what if last night spoiled the magic?

She faced him again, tears stinging her eyes as she tried not to stare at his tempting body. “Did we…?”

“You don’t remember?”

He sounded disappointed and confused, and it made her heart hurt for too many reasons. “I…um…Do you?”

He cocked a brow, his lips tipping up at the edges. It was the kind of answer a guy gave when he didn’t want to commit one way or the other, and she knew him well enough to understand that he was playing it safe. If he didn’t remember, he thought she’d be hurt. And if he did, she’d be humiliated.

She sank down to the bed, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Gage. How could we have done this? I’m so embarrassed.” All these years she’d wondered what it would be like to kiss him, to be in his arms, to see him gazing deeply into her eyes as she made love to the only man besides her deceased husband she’d ever wanted—and the only one she shouldn’t have. Between Rusty and their jobs, there was too much at risk. And now she’d blown it. Not only had they slept together, but she’d been so drunk, she couldn’t even enjoy the memories of their only night together.

“I’m the last person you should be embarrassed with.”

He touched her arm, something he’d done so many times she knew the feel of each of his fingers, but as he moved closer and his lips touched her shoulder, it felt different, sending heat and confusion cascading through her.

Shh. Sal. It’s okay.” He brushed her hair over one shoulder. “You know how I feel about you.”

He felt too good, sounded too reassuring. She pushed to her feet and paced to try to calm her racing heart. She knew exactly how he felt about her. He was always there when she needed him, even when she didn’t realize she did.

They’d met months after she’d lost her husband, but the hurt had still been just beneath the surface. He’d been right there with her as she’d waded through the lingering devastation, and he’d helped Rusty deal with his anger toward his father for leaving behind a world of misunderstanding about a son—Chase, a half brother to Rusty—they hadn’t known about. Gage had taken the brunt of Rusty’s rage, and now he and Rusty were too close for her to jeopardize their relationship for her own happiness.

“This is anything but okay,” she said adamantly. “The last thing I remember is having drinks and celebrating the new youth center. How did we get drunk enough to do this?” They’d come to Vegas for a youth management conference, as they had been tasked to open a new center in Oak Falls, Virginia, where they were due to arrive later today.

“Jesus, Sal.” Irritation rose in his eyes. “You make it sound like sleeping with me is a horrible fate.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” She stared out the window and caught sight of her reflection in the glass. Her normally straight hair stood up in the kind of wild tangles that came from a man’s hands during fits of passion.

From Gage’s hands.

She swallowed hard, wishing she could remember the feel of them, see the heat in his eyes as he buried himself deep inside her. Great. Now she was thinking about having sex with him.

She looked at the clock. “We’re going to miss our flight. I have to go to my room and get ready.”

“Sally, wait. Let’s talk.”

“We’ve obviously talked enough.”

Gage pushed to his feet, carrying the pillow in front of him as she ran around plucking her bra from a chair by the window and her dress from where it lay crumpled at the foot of the bed. Evidence of our drunken fuckfest. A fuckfest I don’t even remember. Renewed panic shot through her. She wasn’t on birth control. She spun around looking for her panties and trying not to completely freak out. She spotted her heels lying by the door and a condom wrapper beneath the edge of the bed. Oh, thank God. Memories of last night came back to her in stilted flashes, like an old movie reel. She remembered stumbling through the hotel room door as they kissed. She shuddered with the memory of her back hitting the wall and Gage’s hard body pressed against her, and his mouth—Lord, his hot, delicious mouth—had trailed down her neck, her chest…

Gage bent down, fishing around in the bottom of the sheet draped around her, startling her from her erotic thoughts.

“Sweetheart, this is not the end of the world. So we had too many celebratory shots.” He rose to his full height of six three or four, big and broad and so freaking hot her breath left her lungs. He lifted his hand and dangled her thong from his finger.

“Maybe not for you.” She snagged the tiny strip of material, feeling her cheeks burn. She pulled on the thong beneath the sheet, trying not to think about his kisses, or how they had led to sex, which she desperately wished she could remember.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said with an annoyed expression. “We’re adults, and we’re totally into each other. This was meant to be.”

“We’re friends. It’s not like that between us and you know it.” It was partially true. They’d never crossed the line between friends and lovers before, even if she wanted to.

“But it could be.” Gage stepped closer, heating up the temperature in the room by fifty degrees. “It can be.” His arm circled her waist from behind, and he kissed her neck. “I want it to be.”

She closed her eyes, fighting tears. “Gage,” she whispered in a shaky voice. “Don’t you get it? Rusty needs you more than we need each other.”

“Why are you and I and he and I mutually exclusive?” He turned her toward him, his expression serious, his jaw tight. “You know I love you both. I have for years, Sally, and I know you feel the same for me.”

Her heart reached out, capturing his confession, reveling in it, even if for only one painful moment. She knew she couldn’t enjoy it, not at Rusty’s expense, and she tucked Gage’s words, and her feelings, away once again.

“What we feel doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “I’m not selfish enough to do that to my son.”

Confusion—anger? hurt?—rose in his eyes. “What the hell does that even mean?”

“Rusty lost his father, Gage. He turns to you for everything. If you and I tried to be a couple and it didn’t work, I’d be screwing him out of the best thing in his life, the one person who helped him find his footing again. I can’t risk that.”

“Bullshit, Sally.” He tightened his hold on her arms. “Whether we’re together or not, I’d never disappear from Rusty’s life.”

His eyes were trained on her, challenging and angry, and still, beneath it all, she saw the surety of his love and the friendship that had always been there, driving the pain of their situation even deeper.

She twisted from his grip and reached for her phone on the nightstand. “But it would never be the same. Not for him and not for us. I can’t—” Her gaze caught on the papers beneath her phone. She lifted them with a shaky hand, scanning the marriage certificate and a receipt for something called an Elvis Hound Dog Wedding. Ohmygod. What have we done?”

“What is it?” He peered over her shoulder, his hot breath momentarily distracting her from the papers. “Well, hot damn, Salbird. Looks like we’re married.”

“This doesn’t mean…It’s got to be a joke.” She shifted the remaining papers on the dresser and gasped at the sight of a photograph of her and Gage kissing beside a heavyset man dressed in full Elvis garb, his arms outstretched, as if he were presenting them to the camera. Above them, a sign read Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

Gage lifted her left hand, revealing black marker circling her ring finger. They both glanced at his left hand. A matching black ring circled his third finger.

*****

AFTER A SIX-hour-plus stressful flight to Virginia, Gage’s patience was wearing thin. Sally refused to talk about their situation. It felt like he’d been given the gift of a lifetime and then it had been stolen away. He was elated to find himself married to the woman who had captured his heart from the first day he’d met her, and equally torn apart by how hard she was pushing him away. He drove the rental car down the quiet roads of Oak Falls, Virginia, where they were spending most of the next week putting infrastructure into place for the new youth center before returning to Allure, Colorado, on Friday. He’d thought setting up the new location would be his big break in getting Sally alone and finally asking her out on a real date. He’d never imagined they’d already be married by the time they arrived. Now, if only he could convince her it wasn’t the end of life as she knew it.

Gage cut the engine and reached for her hand, brushing his thumb over the faded ink on her finger. She must have scrubbed the hell out of it, because his was still black as night despite his own shower. He met her troubled baby blues, hurting for her. “We need to talk about this, Sal.”

She shook her head. “I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. I’ve not only slept with you and I don’t even remember most of it, but we’re married. Married, Gage. Do you even understand how big a commitment this is? It impacts every aspect of our lives.”

“You don’t remember most of it?” He couldn’t stop the grin tugging at his lips. “Then you remember some of it?”

She laughed under her breath as she turned away, staring out the window. “Way to skip over the important part. How can you make fun of this? This is a huge mistake. We have to get an annulment. We need a lawyer, and we have so much to do here—”

“Annulment?” No fucking way. “I don’t want an annulment.”

“Gage,” she said with an incredulous look. “We’ve never even dated.”

“The hell we haven’t. We’ve spent years unofficially dating. We’re closer than most married couples.”

She crossed her arms, her gaze darting over the dashboard, out the window, anywhere but to him. He leaned across the console and took her chin between his finger and thumb, turning her toward him, and searched her eyes for the truth. Did she really want an annulment?

“You know it’s true, Sally. You can’t deny it. We do everything together—go to weddings, visit Rusty, go to the freaking grocery store, for God’s sake.”

“Those things don’t make two people a couple. Marriage is complicated and difficult, and you’ve never even asked me out on a date. We can’t be married.”

And there it was, the topic they’d been dancing around for too many years to count. Every time he got close to asking her out, she skirted the subject. They did go everywhere together, to the point that everyone else thought of them as a couple, but they’d never bridged that gap. Well, it was about damn time they did.

“I never asked you out because you never seemed ready,” he said honestly. He had no idea how much time was enough after someone lost their spouse. He’d played it safe, waiting for a sign. Sally wasn’t a drinker, and last night she’d drank a lot and hung on to him like he was hers, and damn it, from what he could remember, those were pretty big signs.

She threw open her car door, and cold November air rushed in. “Then what makes you think I’m ready for marriage? I can’t. I just can’t…”

She stepped from the car, and he flew out his door and closed the distance between them. “Sally, listen to me, please. I’m confused about what happened last night, too, but I’m not confused about us. You have to know how badly I’ve wanted you for all this time.”

“I do, but, Rusty…” Tears welled in her eyes.

“And what about you? What do you want?” Me. Say you want me.

She leaned back against the car and tipped her beautiful face up toward the sky. She tucked her straight white-blond hair behind her ear, fidgeting with the ends. An adorable nervous trait.

“I don’t know what I want,” she said shakily. “My heart and my head are at odds.”

Hope swelled inside him. “Then don’t make a decision right now. Give us time to digest last night. There has to be a reason you married me, drunk or not.”

She pressed her lips together and a single tear slid down her cheek. He cupped her face, wiping it away, his heart aching for both of them.

“Why do you fight us so hard?” The question came without any thought, but now that it was out there, he wanted answers. “How can you step back when all I want to do is move forward?”

Her eyes shifted away again, drifting over the cars parked nearby, but he was still holding her face, and he wasn’t about to let go.

“Sal, I never pushed you, did I? I gave you time to grieve for Dave. Wasn’t it enough? If you need more time…” It had been almost six years since Dave’s accident, and most of the time Sally seemed okay. Though Gage had to admit, there were moments when she’d zone out and he knew in his gut it had to do with losing her husband. Those moments nearly drove him to his knees. He knew she’d been with Dave since she was in high school, and he couldn’t imagine the pain she must feel. He didn’t want to be a jerk, but he really didn’t know how much longer he could go on as friends when he wanted so much more. He hadn’t realized until just now how much hope he’d pinned on this trip.

She blinked her eyes dry. “This isn’t about Dave. I’ve moved on from losing him. You of all people know that.”

“Are you afraid I’ll hurt you the way Dave hurt you when you found out about Chase?” After Dave died, Sally found out that he had been secretly seeing Chase and his mother, Trisha, trying to build a relationship with them before he revealed the truth to his family. Sally had confided in him enough to know that it had cut her to her core, and he had a feeling that hurt still lingered.

“No! Why would I be? You’re as honest as the day is long. And it’s not like he cheated on me. He was a few years older than me, and he got some woman pregnant before we even met. It wasn’t his fault she never told him about the baby. The only thing he did wrong was not telling me right when he found out.”

He was at a loss as to why, but it was clear that convincing Sally to let down her guard and explore her feelings for him would be an uphill battle. But Gage was an athlete, and he’d climb as many mountains as it took. With Sally as the prize, he wasn’t about to slow down.

“Then what are you afraid of? Tell me so I can fix it. Don’t throw us away before we even have a chance to get started.”

“I’m not. That’s just it. I love our friendship,” she said softly. “And I’ve dreamed about it being more. A lot more. But I’m terrified. Not just for Rusty, but for me, for us.”

“Why? Let me in, Sally, because I don’t understand. I think last night was fate. We didn’t just sleep together. We got married. It’s what was meant to be. You and I are bigger than rational thoughts of what should or shouldn’t be. We always have been. So please, tell me what else is holding you back.”

She drew in a deep breath, her gaze trailing over his face, conflicting emotions staring back at him. “I’ve had a happy marriage, and I lost it. I know how much that hurts. Yes, I’ve gotten over it, but I don’t want a reason to get over you. And if we try this, and break up—”

“Then stop pulling away.” He stepped closer, holding her as he’d wanted to for so long, as a boyfriend and a lover, not just a friend. As a husband, he reminded himself. Something he’d been afraid to dream about.

“There’s a world of difference between friendship and spouses, Gage. Sex complicates everything. And marriage? It’s a world in and of itself, with misunderstandings, compromises, and finding ways to reignite sparks that dim over time. It’s not easy.”

“Sally, I haven’t been with another woman in years, and nothing about relationships is easy.”

Years?” she whispered. “Really?”

He nodded. How could she not know that? He spent nearly every weekend evening hanging out with her. “Yes, and considering neither of us really remembers last night, I’m not sure the sex we had qualifies for the complications you’re talking about anyway, unless we do it again. Sober.” He waggled his brows, earning a small smile, which gave him a thread of hope, and he clung to it like a lifeline.

“Sal, we’ve got almost a week before we go back to our real lives. Rusty isn’t here. Danica and your friends aren’t here. There’s just you and me,” he said, hoping the worry in her eyes might dissipate with the reminder that no one was there to judge them, or whatever else she might be worried about. “Let’s explore what this is, take a leap of faith. Let me take you out on dates and show you how good a boyfriend—a husband—I can be, how good we can be together as a couple. Let’s hold hands and make out until you can’t forget how it feels.”

Her smile widened, but she bit her lower lip, blinking up at him with shyness that tugged at his heart. He loved her so much, he wasn’t about to let her get away. Stepping even closer, he slid his hand to the nape of her neck and gazed into her eyes.

“We’ve already slept together, babe. We’re married. Putting the sex aside, we can’t get any more complicated than we already are. Have dinner with me after we check into our rooms. We’ll take a walk, see a movie, or do whatever you want to do on our first real date.”

“Gage,” she whispered. Her fingers curled around his wrist.

“Say yes, Sally. You know you want to, and you know I’ll never let you down.”

Her gaze cruised over his face, and when she nodded, her smile reaching all the way up to her eyes, his whole world brightened.

“Okay,” she said. “But you can’t tell anyone about last night. If Danica finds out she’ll think we’re completely irresponsible.”

“Danica gave up her therapy practice to marry her client and one of the biggest players I’ve ever known.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Reformed player. Blake only has eyes for her.” Blake Carter was one of the most attentive husbands and fathers Sally had ever met. He and Danica had a little girl named Francesca, Chessie, and Danica was now eight months pregnant, which was why she wasn’t in Virginia with them.

“Yes, of course,” Gage agreed. “The point is, she’s not going to judge us. She wants us to be a couple.”

“Wanting your friends to get together and knowing your employees acted irresponsibly are two separate things. Not to mention she’s going to have another baby in a few weeks, and the last thing she needs is to worry about whether our personal life will somehow mess up the opening of the community center. I’d like to keep our personal life out of the office for now. And you know we can’t let Rusty get wind of this. He’d never trust me again.”

Her gaze softened, and when she looked at him like that—with so much faith there was no denying how close they were—there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.

“Can you please do this for me?” she asked. “Agree to keep the marriage and last night between us until we figure everything out?”

“Now you’re making rules?” he teased. “I’m glad to see you’re taking your role of wife seriously.”

“Gage!”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. You can make all the rules you want. I’m finally getting to take my best friend on a real date.” He grabbed their bags from the trunk, unable to stop grinning as they headed into the hotel.

“Don’t get too excited,” she said. The spark he loved so much was slowly returning to her voice. “I’m not going to sleep with you tonight.”

“Unless I get you drunk.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

“Probably not. Should we cancel your room now and get the honeymoon suite?” The shock and amusement on her face were priceless. Too bad he wasn’t kidding.

Chapter Two

SALLY RAN A brush through her hair one last time, so nervous about her date with Gage, she was literally shaking in her boots. He had seen her at her worst, overcome with grief, sick with the flu, and hot and sweaty when they were out hiking. She didn’t usually worry too much about what she wore around him, but tonight she’d changed three times before finally deciding on her favorite skinny jeans and a cute white sweater, hoping being comfortable would calm her jitters. The over-the-knee, gray suede boots, however, had been a very conscious and embarrassingly calculated decision. Sally was blessed with long legs, and she’d noticed how Gage’s glances lingered and his gaze grew hotter when she wore those particular boots. She didn’t want to appear too eager, but there was no denying that she hoped he’d find her irresistible, as evident by the lace panties and matching bra she’d chosen to help her feel sexy—even if she wasn’t planning to jump into bed with him.

She thought about Gage on the other side of the adjoining door to his room, and a swarm of butterflies took flight in her stomach. They always got adjoining rooms when they traveled, although this time he’d pushed hard for the honeymoon suite when they’d checked in. Come on, Sal. Let’s really give this a shot. His pleading and seductive gaze had almost made her give in, but she’d had hours to think on the long plane ride from Vegas to Virginia, and pieces of their night had come back to her. She remembered toasting the new community center with Gage as they’d sat at the bar, and other people at the bar joining in on the celebration. Gage had sat beside her with an arm around her shoulders, which he did often, but it had felt different, being away from home, with all those eyes on them probably assuming they were a couple. It had felt good. Better than good. It had felt amazing.

It hadn’t been a conscious decision to get drunk, but she’d been a responsible parent since she was eighteen, and it was exciting to finally cut loose with the man she’d been attracted to for so long. All of their friends back home had made comments about the two of them getting together, but the one time Rusty had heard the suggestion, he’d scoffed and walked away, like he didn’t even want to think about the possibility of her and Gage as a couple. His reaction had stuck with her, and this marriage was a big risk. How did a person calculate risk when it came to friendships and love? That question was the driving force behind her refusal to share a room with her big, hunky husband.

Oh God. I have a husband!

A knock sounded at the door, and her heart leapt. She stared at it as if Gage might have x-ray vision and could see her nervously smoothing her sweater over her hips. She wasn’t even sure this date was a good idea, regardless of how much she wanted to go on it. She looked down at her sexy boots. I’m a walking contradiction. Risking their friendship scared the hell out of her. Everything hung on their time together.

No pressure or anything.

She drew in a deep, calming breath, second-guessing her outfit. Should she have gotten more dressed up? Worn something sexier? Something younger? Gage was three years younger than her, which wasn’t a fact she thought about often, but now that she’d asked herself the question, her nerves reignited.

“Bird? Don’t leave me hanging, baby.” Gage’s deep voice came through the door.

She tried—and failed—to push her worries away, and opened the door. Gage stood before her looking like her every fantasy in a pair of dark jeans and a white dress shirt. The first few buttons were open, exposing a dusting of chest hair. His thick sandy-blond hair looked finger combed in that sexy, tousled way she loved. He hadn’t shaved, and his scruff, coupled with his leather jacket, gave him a hard-to-ignore edge. Just like the first time she’d seen him at No Limitz, her heartbeat quickened and her mouth went dry. “Holy smokes” came out before she could stop it.

His lips curved up in a cocky smile as he leaned in, bringing a wave of his manly scent. He kissed her cheek. His whiskers brushed along her skin, unleashing memories of last night’s kisses and knocking her a little off-kilter.

“Hi, gorgeous. These are for you.” A bouquet of red roses in a beautiful glass vase appeared from behind his back.

It had been ages since she’d received flowers, and her insides warmed with his thoughtfulness. “Thank you. They’re beautiful. Come in. I’ll just put these on the table.”

He followed her in, standing so close behind her as she set the vase down, his heat seared down the length of her body.

“You wore my favorite boots.” His minty breath drifted across her cheek. “And you smell incredible.”

He might as well have said he wanted to lick her all over, the way her body quivered.

“Gage,” she said nervously, turning to face him. He was right there. His hands took up residence on her waist. His eyes blazed down at her, through her, hindering her ability to think. She needed to get a grip before she did or said something she shouldn’t.

She attempted humor, not her strong point. “Is this the way you treat all your first dates?”

“No,” he said with a hint of arrogance she wasn’t used to—but she liked. A lot. “This is the way I treat you.”

She couldn’t stop looking at his mouth, wondering how she could have kissed him and not remembered every detail, no matter how drunk. Forcing her gaze to meet his, she said, “You’re making me nervous.”

“Nervous is good. The way I see it, I’ve got several days to make you feel nervous, hot, bothered, happy, and hopefully lots of other new, exciting ways.” He tucked her hair behind her ear, smiling like she was all he’d ever wanted. “And I don’t plan to waste a second of it.”

It was like someone had flicked a switch in him from Gage Ryder, friend, to Gage Ryder, master seducer. “It’s been forever since I’ve been on a first date.” Like more than twenty years. “But aren’t you being a little pushy?”

“Yes,” he said arrogantly.

“Okay, just checking.” At least she wasn’t off base.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this. I like you when you’re nervous, Sal. You look like you don’t know if you want to kiss me or run away.”

She pushed past him and grabbed her coat and purse. “Okay, Casanova. Let’s get out of here before”—I make the wrong choice—“we spontaneously combust.”

“Want me to back off?” he asked as they entered the elevator.

No. “A little. Maybe.”

He didn’t say another word as the elevator descended toward the lobby, though his heated gaze remained trained on her. When the doors opened, a gorgeous redhead was waiting for the elevator. She smiled flirtatiously at Gage, her eyes slowly dragging down his body. He was strikingly handsome, athletic, and confident. The type of man women couldn’t help but check out. Sally had noticed it hundreds of times over the years, but now her claws came out. She felt possessive of him in a way she never had before. She lifted her chin, stood up a little straighter, unwilling to be a wallflower.

Gage laced their fingers together and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. His eyes never left Sally’s face. “Are you sure that’s what you want, bird?”

She felt the redhead watching them, and it took her a second to realize he was asking if she really wanted him to back off. In her head, she heard herself denying the truth, but when she opened her mouth, no words came. It was all she could do to shake her head.

“Good.” He pulled her closer, stepping around the redhead. “Excuse us. Newlyweds coming through.”

Ohmygod. What had she done?

*****

GAGE COULDN’T TAKE his eyes off Sally as they ate dinner at a small window-side table in an Italian restaurant. He had eaten dinner with her so many times, he felt like they were already a couple, even though this night, their first real date, brought a rush of new and exciting feelings. Sally had refused his offer for a drink, although he knew she needed one. She’d fidgeted with her hair, her napkin, and barely said anything throughout their meal.

“How can you be this nervous with me, bird? I’m still the same guy I’ve always been.”

The waitress brought their check, and after paying, he moved to the seat beside Sally and held out his hand. Her gaze flicked up to his. A sexy smile lifted her lips as she set her delicate fingers in his palm.

She shook her head, speaking just above a whisper. “No, you’re not the same guy. Now you’ve seen me naked. You’ve…we’ve…” She pressed her lips together and glanced out the window, inhaling deeply.

He didn’t push, though he wanted to. Instead, he took a moment to really look at her. Sally complained that as a teenager she was pin thin, all legs and arms, but he imagined she was just as beautiful—inside and out—as she was tonight. She wasn’t one of those women who flaunted her assets, though she had plenty to flaunt. Her white-blond hair wasn’t lifeless, as she often complained. It had gentle waves, like the big slides Gage had ridden down on a sack of burlap as a kid at the county fair. On anyone else her hair might look plain, but it suited Sally perfectly, framing her high cheekbones and full, pouty lips, which he couldn’t wait to taste again and again. She was nervously twisting the ends of those gorgeous locks, as she’d done when he’d encroached on her personal space in her hotel room. Did she know how much his effect on her turned him on?

When she faced him again, their eyes connected and held. Heat radiated between them, drawing him closer, and a ragged sigh fell from her lips.

“I hate that after all this time as friends, we ended up in bed together and I don’t remember most of it,” she said. “I don’t even remember our first real kiss.”

“I can remedy that.”

Heat shone in her eyes, and just as quickly she schooled her expression and leaned back. “Gage, there are some things you don’t know about me, and there’s still a lot I don’t know about you.”

He didn’t believe there could be a dark secret about the woman who craved cookies like other women craved chocolate, the mother who he was sure had texted her son at least twice since they’d arrived, or the peer he was certain had already checked her email and left no inquiry unanswered. “I have no secrets, Sal, but enlighten me, please.”

Her eyes darted over his shoulder to the nearby tables.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested, and rose to his feet, bringing her up beside him. He gazed into her eyes, his heart thumping harder at the reality that she was his wife. The words played in his head loud as thunder—my wife.

He helped her with her coat, enjoying every moment of this chance to treat her like she was his. He reached up and freed her hair from where it had gotten trapped beneath her collar, soaking in her appreciative smile.

“Shall we?” He took her hand as they left the restaurant, winking when she looked at him questioningly.

“This is weird.” She lifted their joined hands. “Suddenly you’re acting like we’re a couple, and I’m still trying to catch up.”

“Hurry your cute little ass up, sweetheart. You don’t want to be left behind.”

“Okay, that is the Gage I know. A little smartass, kinda flirty, but this…” She lifted their hands again. “I don’t even know what to do with it.”

He tugged her against him and flattened her hand against his chest, beneath his. “How about doing this, my beautiful wife? I remember a few things about last night, one of which was that you knew exactly what to do with your pretty little hands.”

“Gage!” she whispered with a laugh.

“Come on, bird. You really don’t remember our night together? I mean, at first I didn’t either, but it’s come back to me over the last twelve hours. I know I’ll never forget the look in your eyes as you wrapped your legs around my waist, arching up so I could hit that spot, and—”

Her hand landed hard over his mouth as crimson spread up her cheeks. “Don’t say another word.”

He lightly bit her palm and she gasped. He couldn’t help laughing as he lowered her hand to his chest again and held it there. “You are not that uptight about sex.”

“I’m not uptight, but I don’t need a play-by-play of my own sexual encounter, thank you very much.”

“Then admit you remember what it was like to be in my arms,” he challenged, refusing to allow her to negate their night together. “To kiss me, to feel me loving you like you want me to.”

She swallowed hard, looking as innocent as a girl and as sexy as the woman she was. “I remember some. Most, I think. But there are alarm bells going off in my head right now, and I don’t know what to make of any of it.”

“That’s what we’re here to figure out,” he reminded her as they walked along the brick courtyard in the center of town, surrounded by buildings with ornate carvings above colorful awnings.

“We’re here to get the community center ready for the grand opening in March,” she reminded him. “We have a full schedule of setting up the offices and interviewing. We just happened to get married along the way.”

“Boy, do I like the sound of that coming off your lips.”

“I’m starting to wonder if this was your plan all along.”

“Trust me, bird. My plan would not have been to get you so drunk you didn’t remember me making love to you.”

Her cheeks pinked up again.

“Although, I have to admit, I’m totally digging the whole marriage thing. Now you can’t go out with some other guy.”

“We aren’t really married.”

He lifted her hand and brushed his thumb over the ink mark. “What was that?”

“Okay, we are, but it’s not like you asked me.”

“You sure about that?” He arched a brow, knowing he had, and only now realizing she truly didn’t remember it.

Confusion filled her eyes. “You remember?”

“Hell yes. I tried to tell you on the plane, but you kept shutting me down. When we left the bar we were kissing.” He guided her past a group of iron tables outside a café, around a landscaped garden, where a tree still clung to a smattering of leaves, and beyond a shiny black streetlight, decorated with tinsel and holly.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he led her around the corner and backed her up against the side of the building. “What are you doing?”

“Showing you how we ended up getting married.” He lifted her hands to his shoulders. “We were standing against the side of the building like this.” He pressed his body to hers, heat flooding his veins as he brushed his lips over hers. “We were making out, touching each other, without a care about who might see us, because nobody else existed.”

He kissed the corner of her mouth, and her breath left her lungs in a faint puff.

“God, bird,” he whispered, unable to hold back the truth. “I’ve always wanted you, but last night you were so carefree and so into me, I wanted to consume you. And now…”

His arms circled her waist, holding her tight as he trailed kisses along her neck, to the spot below her ear that had driven her wild last night. She breathed harder, clung to him tighter, rocking her hips and driving him out of his mind. He drew back just far enough to gaze into her lustful eyes. He didn’t wonder what she saw. He knew. There was no room for anything other than his true emotions.

“You were right there with me, sweetheart. I could feel it in your touch, the way I do right now. I could taste it in your kiss. Last night when I put my cheek against yours, like this”—he touched his cheek to hers—“and I said, ‘I want you, Sally. I want to be inside you more than I have ever wanted anything else in my entire life.’”

Her fingers dug into his shoulders. Her breathing shallowed, but she didn’t say a word.

“Do you remember that, bird?” He took her face between his hands, gazing deeply into her eyes. “Any of it?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

She looked at him like he was her whole world. That was the look that had done him in over the years, each time strengthening their connection, drawing him deeper into love with her. He tried to push past the intoxicating emotions dragging him under, but it was like swimming in tar, and said, “Do you remember what you said next?”

“No, but now I remember kissing you, and being so caught up in us that I could barely breathe.”

Hell yeah, you were caught up in us. Your thigh ran up my outer leg, and I’m pretty sure I have claw marks on the back of my neck. He felt himself smiling. “I remember that, too.”

“Pieces of the night are coming back like intermittent flashes I can’t hold on to. It’s like you say something and it spurs an inkling that appears and then skitters away, and I’m having trouble putting the pieces together. Did I…? Did I try to climb you?”

He chuckled. “Yeah. It was the hottest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

“I’m a horrible, skanky drunk, aren’t I?” She buried her face in his chest. “I’m way too old to be climbing anyone.”

He laughed and pressed a kiss to her head. “If I have it my way, you’ll be climbing me when you’re so old you’ll need a walker.”

She smiled up at him. “This is so bad. It’s like the walk of shame I never took, but with my best friend, which makes it even more horrifying.”

“No, babe. It makes it that much more special, because your best friend finds you hot as fuck.”

She bit her lip, her finely manicured brows knitted. “What else did I say or do that I’ll never live down? I’d say I need a drink before you tell me, but I don’t trust myself with alcohol anymore.”

“I’d rather you were clearheaded for this.” He knew what he said next would come as a shock, but she deserved to know the truth. “After I said I wanted you, you told me that you’d never sleep with another man outside of wedlock, because you got pregnant with Rusty the summer after high school, before you were married.”

The color drained from her face. “I told you that?”

He held her tighter. “Yes.”

“Well, I guess it saved me from having to reveal it tonight, but you can never tell Rusty that. He thinks I got pregnant right after Dave and I were married. I have given him so many lectures about safe sex, and they’d be meaningless if he knew the truth.”

“He’s a college student, babe. He knows what happens when you don’t practice safe sex. We’ve talked about it.”

Her eyes nearly bugged out of her head. “You talked about sex with my son?”

“Sure. You didn’t think I’d let him go off to college without being fully prepared, did you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I talked to him about it.”

“There’s a world of difference between Mom telling you to practice safe sex and hearing it from a guy.” He paused and then added, “I gave him some advice on what to do when he was so hard he thought he’d die from blue balls and the girl didn’t want to go further.”

“Seriously? You told him what to do?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“What do you mean, of course? It’s not every day someone talks to my son about sex. Well, don’t leave me hanging. How do guys handle that situation?”

“Depends on the guy. In college, you can’t always rub one out because of roommates or whatever.” He paused, waiting for her to hammer him for saying rub one out, but her eyes were focused, her face a mask of pure interest. She clearly wanted to know the answer. “I told him to keep an ice pack in the freezer, and after a hot date that didn’t end the way his body hoped it would, to put the ice pack on his chest or stomach. It will give his brain something else to focus on, and cool his jets.”

Mischief sparked in her eyes. “I’m totally checking your freezer when we get home. You know that, right?”

“Babe, I’ve been around you for so long, I practically live in the freezer.”

She laughed, and he loved it. Her laugh was so real, a little loud and breathy, which made it even sexier. And when she’d laughed in bed, it had instantly become one of his favorite naughty pleasures, one he’d like to hear repeatedly for the next hundred years.

“Great. Now I’m not just a woman whose only sexual experience has been limited to one man, but I’m also a cock tease.”

He ground his teeth together. “Sal?”

“Hm?”

“Don’t use that word. It makes me hot.”

“Which word?” She paused, and her eyes widened. “You’re such a guy.”

“Your point?”

She rolled her eyes. He was thrilled that she was loosening up.

“Was that one of the things you didn’t think I knew about you? That you got pregnant before you were married and wouldn’t sleep with another guy out of wedlock? Because I think that’s pretty damn respectable, and explains a lot.”

“Mm-hm. Pretty embarrassing is more like it.” Her gaze dropped to his chest. “What else did I tell you?”

He slid a finger beneath her chin, lifting her face so she had no choice but to look at him. “Maybe what’s more important is what I did next.”

She pressed her hands to his chest. “I don’t know if I want to hear it.”

“Why?”

Her fingers clutched his shirt, hanging on tight. “Because now you know that until last night, I hadn’t been with a man since Dave, and I was only ever with him. I probably sucked in bed, and God knows what else I revealed to you in my drunken state of sluttiness.”

“First, you definitely didn’t suck, literally or figuratively. I would have remembered having your mouth on me.”

“You talk so dirty,” she whispered. “Is that because I was so slutty?”

The glimmer of heat in her eyes made him want to talk even dirtier. “You were anything but slutty. You finally gave in to what we both wanted. That’s smart, not slutty.”

“Oh, please! I was so drunk. I probably said all sorts of things.”

“Obviously nothing you said turned me away. Don’t demean what we did, Sally. So, we were drunk? So what? I’m not drunk now, and I want you more than I did last night.”

“Gage…”

“No, don’t ‘Gage’ me. Hear me, bird. You said I didn’t ask you to marry me, but I did.”

Surprise rose in her beautiful eyes, and it killed him that she didn’t remember. “When you told me you’d never sleep with another man out of wedlock, I didn’t hesitate. I got down on one knee.” He knelt before her. “And I took your hand in mine, like this.” He held her left hand. “I said, ‘Sally Tuft, I have adored you for what feels like forever. Marry me and let me love you for the rest of our lives.’”

She sank down to her knees in front of him. “How do you know you said that? Do you remember saying those beautiful words to me?”

“Most of them, yes. But I don’t have to reach far to find what I’ve wanted to say since Danica and Kaylie’s double wedding.”

“Since…” Her voice trailed off as a couple came around the corner, whispering as they passed. “That’s a really long time,” she said incredulously. “What did I say? Last night, I mean.”

Now it was his turn to look away. He would never forget her five-word response—What took you so long?—but he didn’t want to hear those words again until they came from Sally, sober and full of meaning.

“Gage…?”

“I don’t remember exactly. One minute I was on my knees, and the next we were climbing into a cab, about to get married.” He met her gaze, hating the taste of the first and only lie he’d ever told her. And he vowed to never lie to her again.

To continue reading, buy SWEPT INTO LOVE

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