LIVI BURSTS THROUGH the door from the outdoor dining area of the Taproom, the restaurant and bar where we work. She slaps a drink order on the bar and scowls at me and Charley, the other bartender. “There’s a storm brewing outside, but it’s nothing compared to how much I hate you both right now.”
We were in for heavy rains, but hopefully they’d hold off until after closing time. I glance at the order. “Because of two rum and Cokes?”
She rolls her pretty green eyes. “No, Tristan. Because the hottest man on the planet just parked his motorcycle and he’s heading in here. All of my female customers are drooling, and I’m sure you’ll see a flock of them coming in any minute now. Meanwhile, I’m stuck outside and soon I’ll have a pier full of empty tables.” She grabs a handful of napkins and waves them at me with a smirk. “Drool rags.”
“Dibs,” Charley says as she whips up a cocktail.
I laugh and hold my hands up. “I’m on a hiatus from all things male, so be my guest.” My ex, Ian, is a self-absorbed ass, and I was an idiot for letting him treat me like shit. Which is why I’m taking a break from men—even if it kills me. It’s been weeks since we broke up and I moved into my buddy Wyatt’s house. Wyatt and his twin sister, Delilah, own the Taproom. They inherited it when their parents were killed in a car accident a little more than a year ago.
“I’m sure he’s straight anyway,” Livi says. “The guy swaggers like a stud.”
“Hey, gay guys can swagger like studs,” I tease.
“I know that.” Livi peers out the pass-through window to the outside seating area and tosses her blond hair over her shoulder. “You’ll see what I mean. He’s a total badass.”
I tend to my customers as the girls discuss the badass hot guy, and when the front door opens, I can’t help but let my eyes drift over. Livi and Charley fall silent, ogling what truly might be the hottest guy on the planet. Linebacker shoulders fill the doorframe. The godlike creature is carrying a shiny black motorcycle helmet in one very large hand. His white T-shirt is stretched so tight across his chest I can see every ripple of his shredded abs, and his deliciously defined biceps are seriously struggling to be set free from his short sleeves. Tear, baby, tear.
He steps inside and runs a hand through his dirty-blond hair. Deep-set, brooding eyes slide over the customers sitting at the bar, sweep over Charley and Livi, and finally land on me. Charley whimpers, and Livi makes a sound in the back of her throat, both mimicking what I’m feeling, though my mouth is too dry to make a sound.
He swaggers, full of hard-core attitude, to the vacant stool at the end of the bar, giving me a clear view of his perfect ass—and catching the attention of nearly every woman, and several of the men, in the place. My cock twitches, reminding me it’s been way too long since I’ve gotten laid.
The pretty brunette seated next to Hot Guy leans in close, says something, and he flashes a crooked smile, which softens his hard edges but doesn’t take anything away from his rough vibe. His hand cruises through his hair again, and he slaps a sketchbook on the bar. Pulling his massive arms up onto the bar, he nearly knocks into the pretty brunette. He apologizes and pushes his stool farther way.
Livi groans and shoves another order pad in the back pocket of her jeans as I finish making her order. “I swear I’m going to go to bartender school.”
“Hands off. I have dibs. Besides, you have that pen pal from overseas,” Charley reminds her.
“Jason is my best friend, not my pen pal. And you don’t sleep with best friends, especially when they’re a million miles away.” Livi lost her mother to cancer when she was fourteen, and although she
doesn’t talk about that time of her life much, I know Jason has been there for her ever since. She takes her drinks and heads out to serve her customers.
Rusty, one of the waiters, sidles up to the bar, shaking his head. “The new guy has my female customers’ panties in a bunch. Table four wants to send him a drink with the message”—he speaks in a high-pitched tone—“‘We’d like to take you for a ride.’” He scoffs. “Lucky bastard.”
“Oh, no, they are not.” Charley turns her back to the bar and pushes her boobs up so they practically tumble out of her tight black V-neck shirt. She’s usually a Levi’s girl, but tonight she’s wearing skinny jeans. I wonder what’s up with that. “I’m on him.” Charley waggles her dark brows. “I mean, I’m on it.”
“What is with you tonight?” I have to ask. This pushiness is new. She’s usually the girl who assumes hot guys are all hung up on themselves and barely gives them the time of day.
Charley sets her eyes on the guy who’s got my briefs in a bunch. “Just feeling competitive.”
I serve a few customers, keeping an eye on Charley’s flirting. Harborside is a close-knit beach town, but it’s also a college town, which makes it a party town. We get aggressive and handsy transients from time to time, and more than once Wyatt and I have had to step in.
Charley’s pulling out all the stops, leaning over the bar, touching Hot Guy’s hand. She’s beautiful, funny, and smart, studying marine biology and working two part-time jobs. She has a nose for bullshit, and her patience for stupidity hangs by a very thin thread. Given the amount of time she chats the guy up, I assume he’s got more than looks going for him.
She turns to fix him a drink as I tend to a group of scantily clad women waving me over. I toss my bar rag over my shoulder and flash my own pearly whites. “What can I get you ladies?”
“Your phone number?” the redhead says with a giggle.
Tips are tips and flirting’s the name of the game. “Barking up the wrong tree, sweetheart. But if I were straight…” I say coyly and take their order, ignoring their offers to turn me straight. If I had a buck for each time I’d received that ridiculous offer, I’d be rich.
Charley nudges me as she fills another drink order. “He’s not giving anything up. All I found out was that he just got into town last week.” She shrugs. “He’s no dummy, though. The guy’s got brains and brawn. A wicked combination. He seems nice, but very closed off. It’s yet to be seen how rough he is. He might be lock-you-up-in-the-basement rough, or maybe he’s just sexy-as-sin rough.”
“You can tell that much from, ‘Hey, wanna hook up?’”
“Tsk.” She places her hands on her hips, and with a snap of her chin she tosses her brown hair over her shoulder with an impressive amount of attitude. “You know me better than that. I did not ask him to hook up. I was just checking him out and staking claim. In case I’m interested. But he’s so focused in that sketchpad, I can’t get him to give me the time of day.”
I steal a glance at the guy, who’s watching us intently. “Seems like he’s into you,” I say, and before she can respond, a loud group of girls comes through the door and flocks to the bar. I assume they’re the customers Livi mentioned. The fact that they’re just now coming in means Livi took her sweet time taking care of their checks. Hopefully she has a slew of new customers to take care of. I know she needs the tips.
The rest of the night is a mad rush of keeping up with drink orders and overzealous girls vying to pick me up. I can’t help but notice Hot Guy’s occasional snicker at my dismissal of the girls’ advances.
Livi whips in from the pier for one more glance a few times instead of using the pass-through window, and whispers with Charley. Charley touches base with the hot guy, giggling and flirting, as do several of the women who are standing around him. He smiles, comments here and there, then turns back to whatever’s got his rapt attention in that notebook.
As we near closing time, customers clear out, and Hot Guy is still sitting at the end of the bar in deep concentration. A bearded guy who had parked himself at the bar for the last half hour is standing by the door, watching Charley.
“Char, what’s up with that guy?” I nod to the guy by the door.
She traps her lower lip between her teeth and waves to the bearded guy. “Can you close out the notebook guy for me?”
“Sure,” I say, reassessing the bearded guy. “I thought you hated beards. What’s up?”
“Don’t laugh.” She leans in close, her hair tumbling forward, curtaining her face as she whispers, “Blind date.”
We’ve worked together for a long time, and I know Charley has her pick of guys. “Why? And on a Tuesday night?”
“Why does the day of the week matter?”
“The kind of guys I’m meeting on my own haven’t really been my type.” She smiles at the guy by the door. “Brian has a master’s in natural resources. I think I can overlook the beard for a guy I’ve got something in common with. He seems nice enough, right?”
“I guess, but if you had this blind date set up, why were you flirting with him?” I nod toward the guy at the other end of the bar.
She sighs. “If you must know, ever since my sister fell in love with Sam, I’ve been hoping to find the same kind of relationship. Sam Braden was a bit of a bad boy before he and Faith got together, so I thought maybe…”
She looks back at the guy by the door, who definitely has kinder eyes than the broody biker. “But I’m not sure bad boys are my type. I’m more of a nice, smart, no-skeletons type of girl. And Mr. Mysterious over there”—she nods to the guy with the notebook—“hasn’t cracked under my flirtatious pressure, so I’m thinking his skeletons might be too big to keep contained. But I would never know that unless I tried, now, would I?”
She pats my chest and I set my hand on hers, holding her there while I eye Brian one more time. “Fine, but it’s still a blind date. How’d you meet him?”
Charley presses her lips into a thin line.
“Please tell me you didn’t meet him on Tinder.”
“No! Geez, Tristan.” Her cheeks flush. “He’s one of Brooke’s friends.”
Brooke Baker owns an Internet café on the boardwalk called Brooke’s Bytes. I’ve been friends with her for years and I trust her judgment explicitly. “Okay, but keep your phone on and call me if you need me. In fact, text me when you’re home for the night so I know you’re not lying bloody in an alley somewhere.”
She rolls her eyes. “Ian has no idea how badly he messed up by losing you. Not that he deserved you in the first place.” She reaches up and hugs me. “I’m not leaving until we close, but I promise I’ll text you. Even though I think you should spend less time worrying about your friends and more time finding some new guy to take that jerk’s place. The right guy is going to be very lucky to have you.”
My gut clenches at the mention of my ex. I should be over all the shit he did, but some hurts run too deep to be easily cast aside. Unfortunately, almost everything Ian did was hurtful, from ignoring me to making me feel like an imposition. Man, I sound like a pussy. My self-esteem definitely took a pounding, but I’ll never put myself in that situation again. I shove those thoughts aside for the hundredth, and
hopefully the last, time. Charley heads toward the bearded guy, and I make my way down the bar. The blond guy’s still laboring over his notebook. His jaw is tight, and his eyes are narrowed in concentration.
I grab the empty bottle in front of him. “Last call. Can I grab you another beer?”
“Sure, thanks.” He’s too engrossed in whatever he’s drawing to spare me a glance, but he’s got one of those in-control voices that makes me want to thank him.
I bring him his beer, and he lifts intense admiral-blue eyes that connect with mine and momentarily steal my breath. When he flashes that sexy crooked grin, heat flares between us, and I wonder if he’s bisexual. Or maybe just curious. We get our fair share of those around here, too. Straight guys looking to experiment for a night. Not my thing.
“Thanks, man,” he says, and reaches a hand across the bar. “Alex.”
His handshake is firm and his hand is rough, like he does manual labor. My sex-deprived brain moves straight to how those strong, rough fingers would feel wrapped around my cock.
Wyatt comes through the door with his girlfriend, Cassidy, tucked beneath his arm and calls out my name, rescuing me from my ridiculous straight-guy fantasy.
“Be right there,” I tell Wyatt.
Wyatt kisses Cassidy and heads into the stockroom.
Alex knocks back half his beer in one gulp and tears a piece of paper from the back of his notebook. He quickly scribbles on it, folds it in half, and passes it across the bar to me. “I’ve got to go. Would you—”
I snag the note. He’s clearly not gay and looking only for a favor. “Sure, I’ll give Charley your number.”
There’s no mistaking the seductive darkness staring back at me. My entire body electrifies.
“It’s not for her,” he says in that commanding voice that makes every part of me stand at attention. “It’s for you, Tristan.”
Did I tell him my name? He probably overheard it. Either way, it sounds hot rolling off his tongue.
He rises to his feet, our hands still touching. When he reaches for his helmet, our physical connection breaks, but the tantalizing heat remains.
“Call me.” Alex takes a few steps away and looks over his shoulder. That mind-numbing grin sends another blast of heat below my belt. “See ya around, T.”
Wyatt comes back into the bar and sets a bottle of champagne on the counter. “What’s up with Alex?”
I’m still trying to process that Alex isn’t straight. The endearment he used, and the way he said it so confident and casually, as if we were old friends, makes my mind stumble again. T?
“You know him?”
“Wasn’t that Arty’s grandson, Alex Wells?” Wyatt asks. “I only met him once a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s him.”
Arlene “Arty” Bindon was a local sculptor who lived in a bungalow down the beach. We’d met a few years ago when I was out running. Unfortunately, she passed away over the winter. She was a tiny woman, about five feet tall, with frizzy gray hair that always looked windblown. From the moment we met I was drawn to her sassy nature and creative outlook. She reminded me of my own grandmother, who passed away when I was just a kid. Arty and I became close, and I checked on her when we had storms,
brought her groceries every so often, and sometimes I drove her to appointments in town. She talked often about her grandson, who was in the military. She used to say, He’s a good boy, like you.
I glance down at Alex’s number, seeing the brooding biker with new eyes. “I thought he was just passing through.”
“Maybe he is.” Wyatt drapes an arm over my shoulder as Brandon comes into the bar, guitar in hand, followed by Delilah and her girlfriend, Ashley, and two of our other friends, Jesse and Brent Steele. Brent’s also carrying his guitar. “Are you done, or do you want to talk about Alex some more? Because I have huge news.”
“Sorry,” I say, shaking my head to clear it and noticing, for the first time tonight, Wyatt’s big-ass grin. “Huge news? Cough it up already.”
Wyatt laughs. “Finally! Cassidy and I got engaged. It’s time to celebrate.”
LAST NIGHT’S STORM dredged up rocks, bits of driftwood, black skate egg cases, and stringy strands of seaweed, all of which I dodge as I run down the beach. Rough waves batter the shore, like thoughts of Alex have been crashing through my mind all night. I still can’t shake the feeling that he acted like he knew me. Knowing Arty’s propensity to chat, he probably does know of me. The question is, how much does he know? Dodging an inky mass of seaweed, I think about how Arty would have hunted through the stringy mess. Her frizzy hair would dance in the breeze like that of a rebellious child refusing to be tamed. She’d pull one of her thick cardigans across her frail shoulders, gaze down the beach as if it were her lover, and say, “Don’t you love the beach after a storm, when the treasures of the ocean floor are unearthed and cast ashore?”
My mind returns to Alex, who it hasn’t strayed far from. I’ve been racking my brain, trying to remember seeing him at Arty’s funeral, but for the life of me I can’t. I wonder if he’s here to stay, or just to settle up her estate and move on. Knowing how much Arty adored him, it would sadden me if their relationship meant so little to him that he’d swoop in and sell her place, cash in on the equity, and move on.
As I near town, more people meander along the beach, bundled up in sweaters and clutching steaming mugs to ward off the September-morning chill. Squinting against the rising sun, I see a broad figure approaching. He’s carrying a long piece of wood over his right shoulder. His sweatshirt hangs open, giving me an amazing view of his athletic physique. His face is downcast, searching the wet sand. The view of his bulging biceps straining against his sweatshirt sleeves stirs all the parts of my body I’ve been trying to ignore for the past few weeks. It’s about time to stop this ridiculous break from human
touch and get back in the saddle. I slow my pace to get a better look, and he lifts his face. Alex. Our eyes catch, and a wide smile spreads across his chiseled jaw.
I tell myself to calm the hell down, but the guy is even hotter in the light of day. He picks up his pace, closing the distance between us, and I realize he walks with a slight limp, favoring his left side.
My goddamn heart is running like a freight train. I stop walking as he nears, and he steps in so close, I think he’s going to drop that piece of wood and grab me. Hell, yes.
“T,” he says in that commanding tone that melts my insides.
His eyes are even deeper blue than I remember. They are riveting, soulful and guarded at once.
“I didn’t know you were a runner.” He flashes the crooked smile that did funny things to me last night, and yup, my stomach goes squirrely again.
I have to clear my throat to stop myself from staring at his deliciously plump lower lip. What is it about his slanted smile that I find incredibly sexy? I fantasized all night about his mouth and his rough, commanding voice. Needing to get a grip, I push my hand through my hair and drag my eyes over the water.
“I’m taking a break after a rough breakup, and a guy can only take so many cold showers. Running takes the edge off.”
He laughs, and it rumbles into the air. “I hear ya.”
His eyes rake down my body like a stroke of heat. I’m wearing only running shorts, and if he does it again, he’ll get an eyeful of the effect he has on me. I remind myself to slow the hell down, because no matter how hot the guy is, there is a good reason I’m taking a break. And falling off the wagon for a guy who’s only in town for a few days wouldn’t be the smartest decision.
“You’re in great shape,” he says. “We should work out together sometime.”
“Yeah, that’d be cool.” My mind’s stuck in the gutter, and despite my need for smarter decisions, I’m hoping he means something else by work out. The way he looks in his cargo pants and tight white shirt is doing nothing to help my condition.
I glance at the driftwood on his shoulder and meet his piercing stare. “Nice wood.”
“The storm brought in a few nice surprises.” He raises his brows, and his eyes slide down my chest again.
I swallow, breathing harder. “So, you’re into wood?” Aw, man. My brain’s gone. I can’t even make normal conversation. Something about this guy’s rough demeanor and penetrating eyes has me tied in knots like a kid with his first hard-on.
The sinful smile that creeps across his face is too much, and a laugh slips out. I scrub a hand over my mouth, and thankfully, he laughs, too.
“I’m sorry.” I turn toward the water, trying to regain control of my inane laughter.
“Why? Because you’re wondering about my affinity for wood?” He bumps me with his shoulder and it sends us both into another burst of laughter.
“Apparently taking a break equates to acting like a fool. Can we start over?”
He drapes his free hand over my shoulder like he’s my best buddy and says, “I kind of like this foolish T. How about we keep him around for a while?”
Our eyes connect again, and along with searing heat I feel the stroke of friendship. I like his mix of rough and playful, and his crooked smile, and the way he’s looking at me right now. Especially the way he’s looking at me right now. As if he likes me, and not just the idea of hooking up. Although the seduction radiating off the man is enough to set the sea on fire.
THE STRENGTH OF the vibe between us catches me off guard. Tristan’s even hotter than I imagined, but it wasn’t his incredibly hot body or handsome face that had me giving him my number so quickly last night. It was the way he protected Charley. There are three things I hold in high regard: family, loyalty, and strength. Okay, four. Knowing when to use that strength is important, too. The restraint in his eyes last night told me how hard it was for him to keep from having a talk with the bearded guy before Charley went out with him. But he drew the line, allowing Charley to be the strong woman she obviously needed to be. After two tours in Afghanistan, I know a thing or two about when to let people fight their own battles and when to step in. Tristan seemed to respect that line, too, even with my grandmother, who could be as headstrong as me.
I drop my arm from Tristan’s shoulder, adjust the driftwood I’m carrying, and try to figure out a way to spend more time with him.
“I wasn’t going to call,” he confesses.
So much for my hopes of spending more time together. Not knowing how to respond, I mumble, “No?”
He shakes his head. “No. Then Army said you were Arlene’s grandson.”
An icy shiver ripples through my chest at the word army, and I wonder if he’s got the whole scoop on me. “Army?”
“Sorry. Wyatt Armstrong. That’s his nickname. He doesn’t use it much, but sometimes it still slips out. He said he knew you.”
It was a chickenshit move last night to leave before Wyatt came out of the back room and roped me into a conversation, but I didn’t want to talk about my grandmother. And around here that’s where conversations seemed to lead. I’ve yet to meet a person who knew my grandmother and didn’t share
stories that nearly wrecked me. I’m pretty sure a guy with tears in his eyes wouldn’t be a turn-on for a big guy like Tristan.
“Yeah. We met a while back when I was here on leave. Nice guy.” I want to lead the conversation away from my grandmother, but I have a feeling there will be no deterring Tristan if that’s where he’s headed.
“He is. I’ve known him forever.”
“He got engaged last night. He was there to celebrate.” Tristan gazes down the beach, and I remember he was out for a run. My mind spirals back to the years when I could run without pain, when carrying sixty-plus pounds of equipment and trekking for miles was all in a day’s work. That was before the incident that nearly cost me my life—and kept me from my grandmother’s funeral. Now I have a torso riddled with scars, painful memories so thickly encased in guilt nothing can touch them, and a mangled leg. Aren’t I a catch?
“Hey, I don’t want to hold you up,” I lie. He’s the only person I’ve actually wanted to talk to for months. My grandmother spoke of him often, and I’m curious to know if he saw her at the end, and if so, if she said anything that I should know about. But at the same time, I’m afraid of what I might hear.
He cracks a warm smile, and his gaze moves over me. I’m not even sure if he realizes he’s checking me out because the look in his eyes is more like he’s thinking than turned on. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, and shift my stance. The ridiculous idea that he can somehow see my injured leg through my pants sneaks into my mind, and my chest tightens again.
“Then you are Arty’s grandson?”
Was. I grit my teeth. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore compete with my grandmother’s voice from our last visit. I hear Bruce in those waves. I think he’s still here. She spoke of my grandfather often. She’d turned to me with a spark of rebellion in her eyes and said, Maybe neither of us will ever leave. I sense her so strongly in the bungalow, I’m pretty sure she’s still hanging around, making sure I came to Harborside as she’d encouraged me to. Or more likely, making sure I’m okay.
“Yes,” I finally answer.
He runs his hand through his thick dark hair. It’s been so long since I’ve touched another man, my hands itch with the desire to do the same. I can see he’s packing some heat in those shorts, and he’s shredded from neck to ankle. Gripping the wood tighter, I force myself to turn away before I start sporting wood.
“I’ve run enough for this morning,” he says. “Mind if I hang with you for a while?”
Mind? I’d like him to hang out in my bed. “Not at all. That’d be cool.”
“You can tell me about your need to show off your big wood,” he teases. “Making up for a deficit?”
The comment stings, but I know he doesn’t mean it the way I’m thinking.
“Hardly,” I assure him.
We walk for a while, making small talk and picking up a few choice pieces of driftwood. Tristan takes them from me, freeing up my hand.
“Just like to have your hands on wood, then?”
Tristan arches a brow. “Look who’s talking.”
I laugh under my breath. “I’m good with my hands.” Want to see just how good?
“Somehow I don’t doubt that.” He nudges me up the beach as a wave rolls in at our feet.
We both lean down to pick up a piece of wood at the same time, and the air between us sizzles and pops. We hesitate, as if the world is suddenly standing still, waiting for one of us to make a move. I wave my hand for him to pick it up. My mind’s busy imagining how well our bodies would fit together. Knowing that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I push those thoughts down deep and continue walking.
“I make furniture from driftwood, metal, glass.”
“Do you have a workshop?” he asks.
I look up the beach at my grandmother’s bungalow. Even though I didn’t grow up here, and I’ve visited only a few times while on leave from the army, it feels like home. Anywhere my grandparents lived feels like home. Lord knows my mother never settled down in any one place long enough to create a real home for us.
“I’m hoping to use my grandmother’s studio at some point.” When I get the guts to clean it out. My mother cleaned out the bedroom when she came for the funeral, but she left the contents of the kitchen and studio, assuming I’d want them. My heart aches every time I think about going into the room where my grandmother poured her soul into her artwork.
“So you’re not just here to settle her estate and then move on?” There’s a hopeful lilt to his voice.
“In a sense, coming here is my way of moving on.”
I shrug as a breeze sweeps off the ocean, and I quicken my pace, hoping to outrun the question.
“Something like that,” I admit.
“Your grandmother spoke very highly of you, so they can’t be that bad.”
I mull over my response, walking in silence toward the house.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to pry,” Tristan apologizes. “I really liked Arty, and I know you were important to her. If you want someone to talk to, I’m here.”
“Thanks, T. I appreciate it.” We walk up the rocky steps and lay the wood we’re carrying in a pile in front of the house.
Tristan wipes his hands on his shorts and squints against the sun as he takes in the view. “I miss her, you know? She loved walking the beach after a storm.”
“Yeah, she used to write to me about it.”
“She’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually found sea glass. People talk about it, but I’d never seen anyone lucky enough to find any. She found pieces often, and every time, she’d hold out her hand—” He holds out his hand and says, “You know how little her hands were.”
“Yeah,” I manage, remembering holding her hand as a boy, when her hand could contain mine, and our last visit, when I noticed how frail her hands had become. “Her hands should have been dry from all the sculpting she did, but they weren’t. They were soft as butter.”
“I think that was her hand lotion. Lovely Lilac. She used to get it delivered from a woman named Roxie Dalton in Sweetwater, New York. She bought it by the case.”
“How do you know that?” It’s a strange feeling to realize he knew things about my grandmother that I didn’t.
He shrugs. “She had a hard time reaching Roxie, so I got online and ordered it for her. Sorry, I got off track. I wanted to tell you about the sea glass. She’d find these pieces, and she’d get this look of disbelief, and she’d say, ‘In eighty-plus years, do you know I’ve only found nineteen pieces of sea glass? Until today. This is number twenty.’ She told me that every time she found a piece, and the number changed with every telling. Sometimes it was eleven, other times it was twenty-four.” He laughs, and it’s as easy and comfortable as the rest of his demeanor.
For a beat we both gaze out over the water, the memory filling the silence. I want to hear more about my grandmother and their friendship. I want to thank Tristan for looking after her. But the ache of missing her is too raw, so I do what I do best and repress those thoughts.
He turns toward the house. “Do you have anything you’ve made here? I’d love to see them.”
“Seriously? I mean, don’t feel obligated.”
“Obligated to see furniture? I’m nice, but not that nice.”
“Why do I have a feeling that’s not true?” I pull open the creaky wooden door of my grandmother’s bungalow. Technically it’s mine now, but I’ll always think of it as hers. Tristan follows me in, his eyes moving swiftly over a string of mismatched lights hanging from the exposed-beam cathedral ceilings. Sunlight shimmers through the windows onto the painted concrete floor. I know he’s been inside before, but I wonder what he thinks of the cold stone bleeding through the painted concrete walls and the mismatched furniture. My grandmother bought the place back in ’83 and refused to let me paint it. She said she liked that it looked as though it had been battered by the sea.
I wave toward the wooden table by the windows and at the glass-top coffee table. “I made both of those.”
I wonder if he feels my grandmother’s presence as I do. If he does, he keeps it to himself as he crouches by the coffee table and touches the driftwood standing on end beneath the glass.
“There are twenty-two pieces of wood,” I explain. “My grandmother and I collected them together one summer. I wanted to give the impression—”
“Of fluidity?” he asks, rising to his feet.
“Yeah. Not many people see that.”
He glances around the room and walks over to the shelves I made for her when I was on leave two years ago. Two thick branches form a V. I cut holes in three slabs of driftwood, slid them over the branches, and secured them in place with twine, giving the shelves a rustic feel to match her bungalow.
He raises his brows. “This yours?”
I nod and cross my arms over my chest. “Hers, but yeah. I made it.”
“These are really cool.” He moves to the windows and picks up a picture frame I made when I was twenty, a few months before I joined the army. My grandparents moved here six months after my grandfather retired. He was a stubborn old man, and he never cared for doctors. His cancer had gone undetected for too long, and he passed away four months later.
Anger and sadness well in the pit of my stomach.
Tristan waves the frame in my direction. “Yours?”
I nod, and he sets it back down.
“She has this mirror in the bathroom. The frame is—”
“Made from thick pieces of driftwood and shells. Also mine. For years I made furniture and accessories and stuck them in storage. I’ve got a lot of my equipment stored, too. I’m opening a retail store as soon as I can find the right space.”
“Wow, you really are planning to stick around.”
“I hope to. This is home now.” It feels good to say home and know that if I ever leave, it’ll be my decision, not the army’s or my nomad mother’s.
“There are some vacant properties right in town. A lot of retailers can’t make ends meet over the winter, so they take seasonal leases.”
“I know it’s tough to keep a business going in a resort town, but furniture isn’t seasonal. I’ve got friends on Cape Cod and in Maryland who have bought a few of my pieces, and once the store is up and running, they’re going to help me spread the word. I’m pretty confident that once I get my shit together, I can make it work.”
“That’s great. I know the area like the back of my hand. If you want someone who doesn’t have a financial stake in your finding a place to go with you when you look at properties, I’d be happy to give you the inside scoop on locations.”
Like I’d turn down spending more time with him? “Really, T? That’d be great. I don’t know the area well enough to decipher a great location from a mediocre one. I’m actually meeting a real estate agent at noon if you’re free.”
“Sure. I don’t work until six tonight.” Tristan points to my grandmother’s studio and takes a step toward it. “There’s some unfinished furniture in there.”
I grab his arm and shake my head. “I know,” I say too sternly. “I’ll get to it.”
He eyes the door. “You don’t like people seeing your unfinished work?”
If only it were that simple. I point to the archway leading to the kitchen across the room. “My current work is in there.” I put a hand on his back, feeling his muscles tense beneath my touch. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I want to.” I’m enjoying his appreciation of my work, despite the awkwardness of avoiding my grandmother’s studio.
The kitchen table is pushed against the wall, stacks of wood, scraps of metal, glass, shells, pieces of netting, and other items I’ve collected lay in piles on the floor. I still have a lot of my equipment in storage, but the lathe and table saw sit where the table used to be. Pieces of a chair I’m building cover the top of one of two wooden workbenches.
I feel Tristan’s eyes on me as I touch the toe of my shoe to a stack of driftwood. “These are for a free-form chair.”
I walk to the pile in front of the stove. “The last time I was here, my grandmother and I drove to her friend’s house out near Falmouth after a storm and collected a number of these pieces that had washed up on shore. I’m making a chandelier from them.”
He holds my steady gaze as he steps confidently across the floor. I try not to stare at the way his chest lifts as he breathes, or the ripple of his abs as he nears, and fail epically. Just like that, I get hard.
“I was going to give it to my grandmother this Christmas,” I say, trying to distract myself from the lust in his eyes and the sculpted bronze shoulders before me. But the heady sound of desire in my own voice is too thick to disguise.
“You miss her.” His dark eyes never leave mine.
In the months since my grandmother’s passing, many people have told me they were sorry for my loss, and they’ve shared stories and told me they missed her, but not one of them has removed themselves from the equation long enough to see my pain.
“You’re not ready to face her studio.” There’s no judgment in his tone. He touches my arm, and though his words emote friendship, the darkness in his eyes offers much more.
“Not yet.” My voice is croaky, and our eyes hold for so many beats the air between us shifts and simmers again as it had on the beach.
His chest rises as his hand slides down my arm to my fingers, lingering there. I’m tempted to curl mine around his and pull him against me. As my fingers begin to move, his slip away, and he takes a reluctant step back.
I step closer, unwilling to allow a disruption in the energy buzzing between us. I want more of what we just felt. “It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to touch a man.” I have no idea where the confession comes from, but there’s something about Tristan that makes me trust him and want to keep him close. Very close.
He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t step away. The desire in his eyes is raw. I drop my gaze to his formidable erection straining against his shorts and step closer, pushing the limits because that’s who I am. That’s how I handle things. Only I’ve forgotten that until this very moment. I’ve repressed taking what I wanted for so many years, the unfamiliar urges roaring through me feel primal.
Tristan holds his ground, lifts his chin. His jaw tightens, and his eyes go impossibly darker. He’s so fucking hot I want to take him against the wall.
“I can’t.” His voice is strained with unmistakable hunger, heightening my ache for him.
“Can’t or won’t?”
His jaw clenches repeatedly. “Both, I guess.”
I shift my hips forward, brushing against his cock, hoping to tempt him into tasting what I’m certain will be unfuckingbelievable. “Because…?”
There’s a war going on behind his eyes. He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, but we’re both caught up in the inferno.
“Damn it,” he growls, and grabs my head.
Our mouths crash together, and my first taste of him unravels me. I back him up against the wall, our bodies grinding together. Taking the kiss deeper, rougher, he groans, and heat streaks down my chest, throbs between my legs, and I need to touch him. I palm him through his shorts, and his head tips back. He’s every fantasy rolled into one delectable man, and I’m like a rabid dog, unwilling to deny myself his pleasures.
“Fuck,” he grinds out.
He’s hung like a fucking horse, and as I claim him in another scorching kiss, all I can think about is his cock in my mouth. He grabs my head, angling my face, and intensifies the kiss, wrestling for dominance. I widen my stance, pinning him against the wall with my hips, and grab his hands, imprisoning them beside his head.
“Fuck, T. You’re so fucking hot.”
He grinds against me. “I can’t do this, Alex. Not yet.”
In the space of a breath I try to process the way his body is contradicting his words. Then his mouth is on me again, taking me in another turbulent kiss. We’re both moaning, clawing for more, and I lose myself in the kiss, the heat of our bodies. He takes advantage of my momentary weakness. Shifting his weight, he pins me against the unforgiving concrete wall. His eyes are fierce, he’s hard as steel, and he’s got a harsh scowl on his perfect, fuckable mouth.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do,” he pants out, “than push you to your knees and have you suck my cock until I come.”
Holy hell. “Done.” I slide down the wall, and he lifts a knee between my legs, stopping me.
“Then what?” he challenges.
“Whatever you want.” I top, but my mind is gone. I’m fantasizing about what it would feel like to bottom for him. I freeze with the thought. There’s no way in hell I’m going to let him see my leg, which means I need to get a fucking grip. Dropping my pants to my knees is one thing, but taking them off?
As if he sees my inner conflict, his mouth comes coaxingly down over mine in a sensual, deep kiss, calming the erratic storm inside me.
“What I want,” he says as our lips part, “and what I’ll do are two different things. I want this.”
He strokes my cock through my pants, and I grind my teeth against the incredible feeling of his strong hand driving me out of my mind.
“But I’ve made enough mistakes,” he says with a pained look. “I need to do things right this time.”
I lean forward and steal another kiss. His hand moves to mine, and he laces our fingers together, holding them beside my head as I’d done to him, only his grip is lighter. He knows I want this.
“What is it about you?” he asks against my mouth. “You make me forget to be careful.”
“I blame you.” I narrow my eyes but can’t stop the grin tugging at my lips. “I haven’t wanted, I haven’t taken, in so long, I’d almost forgotten how.”
I feel his strength ease and I shift us again, bringing him against the wall. He’s smiling, though I know his back has to be scratched from the rough concrete.
“I’d almost forgotten how, but then I see you,” I admit accusatorily. “You open that hot mouth of yours, and every word that comes out of it, every look you cast my way, claws at me.”
I cup his cheeks and press my lips to his in one final kiss.
“You’re going to walk out that door, go home, and take an ice-cold shower.” Sending him away is the last thing I want to do, but I respect what he’s told me. “But you won’t be able to get me off your mind, the same way I won’t be able to think of anything other than you when I walk my ass into my own icy shower.”
The liquid heat in his eyes is now tempered with amusement. “I won’t?”
“Yes, T. You won’t. Where can we meet for our date?”
His eyes fill with confusion at my change of subject. “Date?”
I kiss him softly. “You want to be careful, do things right. I haven’t done this in…well, ever. But a date seems like the right first step, and since you offered to go with me to meet Dinah, the real estate agent, why don’t we meet for coffee first and make it into an afternoon date.”
“A date? Yeah, I’d like that. Brooke’s Bytes, the Internet café on the boardwalk. Does eleven work? And do you mean Dinah Crickenton?”
“Eleven’s perfect, and yeah, I think that’s her last name.”
Tristan cringes. “She’s not the best agent around.”
“See why I need you?” I step away and eye his erection straining against his shorts. “You might want to wait for that to go down before taking off.”
“Like that’s going to happen?” He utters a curse, walks over to the refrigerator, and throws it, and the freezer, open, standing in front of the cold air.
I grab one of my clean T-shirts from the laundry room off the kitchen and toss it to him. He catches it with one hand.
“Come on, stud. I’ll give you a lift on my motorcycle.”
He closes the doors and puts on the shirt, which hangs over his shorts.
“Does this mean we’re going steady?”
“You wish. We’ll see how the date goes.” I grab my keys off the counter and head outside. As he slips a helmet on, I climb on my bike and pat the seat behind me.
He straddles the bike and wraps his arms around me. “Oh yeah, like this is going to help my situation?”
“Probably not, but I’ll sure enjoy it.”
Ready for MORE Tristan and Alex?
TEMPTING TRISTAN releases October 19, 2016
Get your copy here
Copyright Melissa Foster, World Literary Press 2016