Chapter 7

Sandy wasn’t prepared to be swept away. She wasn’t prepared for the need that crashed through her. Like a wave from the sea, it broke over her body and tugged at her feet until she was sure she would fall and go under. She already couldn’t breathe; what difference would it make if she found herself drowning in sensation?

Kyle’s mouth pressed against hers. She told herself to pull back, but after the first moment of contact, she was lost. Lost in the passion, the heat and the need. Lost to feelings she’d long thought dormant. Lost to the excitement of being joyfully alive.

At the first brush of his lips, her body surged toward him. She wanted to be next to him, around him, feeling everything, touching everywhere. His mouth was firm, yet yielding, his breath sweet and warm. He didn’t invade her or conquer her, he simply touched her. He didn’t try to hold her still, or in any way keep her from turning away. He didn’t have to. Perhaps he already knew how her heart thundered in her chest and her palms grew damp. Perhaps he was used to consummation by fire, but for her, it was the first time.

He stood one step down from her, so they were closer in height. If she had the strength to open her eyes, she would be able to stare into his. But she had no will, no power, nothing but need and passion. From the faintest of kisses, from the barest whisper of his mouth on hers, the tide lapped at her feet, tugging, pulling, until her self-control slipped away and was lost.

Lips on lips, chest to chest, thighs brushing thighs. Her hands clutched at his upper arms, as much to hold him in place as to keep her balance. His hands rested on her waist, comfortably, easily, as if he’d held them there a thousand times before. As if he knew she would not-could not-withdraw from him.

Her eyelids fluttered as she became lost in a world of sensual intensity. She told herself it was just a kiss. Nothing more. But she hadn’t been kissed in so long, she could have wept from the wonder filling her. She could have perished from the hunger. His mouth pressed against hers, promising more, leaving her quivering. She clung to him as her world disappeared, leaving only the darkness and the feel of him next to her.

He moved back and forth, reminding her of the familiar movements of love, of the dance between a man and a woman. He was broader than Thomas had been, taller and more muscled. But his touch was softer, slower and more controlled. The contrasts and similarities filled her senses. She wanted him to kiss her forever. She wanted to forget all but this moment.

His mouth parted slightly and his tongue swept across her lower lip. She gasped as fire or electricity or lightning leapt between them, burning her skin. Her breasts tightened and her knees began to shake.

When he tilted his head, she prepared herself for the sensual assault. He didn’t disappoint her. He brushed once more against her lips, then moved lower, trailing damp, openmouthed kisses along her jaw, then her neck. She arched her head back, groaning softly as he found the pulse point by her collarbone. He circled the throbbing vein with his tongue, then blew on the damp skin.

She slipped her hands up his arms, to his shoulders, then around to his back. The muscles there were thick cords, flexing and releasing under her touch. Sweeping her fingers up to his short hair, she let the silky strands tease her sensitized palms. Then, as she pressed her body more fully against his, she reveled in his strength and male hardness.

He slid his hands down her hips to her rear, where he cupped the full curves and drew her tightly against him. Instantly, her woman’s place began to ache. She could feel herself swelling, dampening, readying for him. She wanted him to lift her up against him, moving her back and forth until they’d both found their release. Instead, he taunted her with a mimicry of the pleasure they could find.

His mouth returned to hers. She parted her lips without being asked, needing to know him, to take all of him inside. He tasted hot and sweet, as if his flavor had been fashioned for her alone. His tongue thrust against hers, strong and sure. She danced around his assault, teasing him, tempting him, wanting him. His hands moved up her back, then around to touch her breasts.

He cupped her curves, taking the weight in his palms. Through her shirt and bra she could feel the imprint of each of his fingers. Her breasts swelled. She arched toward him, silently asking for more. He squeezed gently and whispered her name. She clung to him as her legs buckled.

He brushed his thumbs against her hard nipples. Fire shot through her, down to her feet, then up to center in her woman’s place. As he teased her nipples, he brought his mouth back to hers. This time, she was the aggressor, thrusting her tongue past his lips. She explored him and tasted him. Every cell of her body was aflame, humming with desire.

She wanted more. She wanted to be naked with him, to touch him and have him touch her. The passion shocked her. She didn’t remember it being like this before. Certainly not in the last few years of her marriage. She hadn’t been attracted to anyone since Thomas had passed away. Why now? Why with Kyle? And why, for heaven’s sake, on her front porch where any of her children could walk out and see them?

Still, she didn’t pull back. She couldn’t. She wanted all of him, this minute. On the porch, on the grass, it didn’t matter. She needed him.

His hands moved from her breasts to her shoulders. His hips angled away from hers. His mouth moved from her lips to her cheek, then he firmly set her away from him. She blinked, as if awakening from a long sleep. The intensity of the passion left her stunned, as if she’d experienced something life-changing and couldn’t yet make sense of it. She was surprised by her reaction, but not frightened. It was good to know she could still feel something.

Dark brown eyes stared into her face. She wasn’t sure what he was seeing there, but she refused to be ashamed. Despite the flush she felt on her cheeks, she pushed her hair back and met his gaze.

“I’m not sorry,” she said defiantly.

“Thank God,” he breathed.

“What?”

“I thought you’d get angry at me or something. That was a hell of a kiss.” He sounded as if he’d been running for miles. The thought pleased her. She would hate to have been the only one affected by what they’d just done.

Kyle drew in a deep breath and settled his hands on his hips. “It’s a good thing your kids are only a few feet away, or I would have been tempted to make love to you right here on the porch and risk entertaining the neighbors.”

“Really?”

He laughed. An unexpected spurt of embarrassment caused her to duck her head. She stared at the proof of his maleness straining against the button-fly of his jeans and felt a fierce longing. She wanted to touch him there, to feel him surge against her hand.

He pressed his forefinger under her chin and forced her to look at him. “What are you thinking about?” he asked, lowering his hand to his side.

Embarrassment deepened to mortification. “Nothing,” she said, her voice coming out in a squeak. She searched her brain for a safe topic. “Just that, ah, we can’t do this again.”

He looked as surprised as she felt. Where had that thought come from? But as soon as she said the words, she knew they were true. She couldn’t risk it, not with him. He was completely wrong for her. She wanted a different kind of man, although she wouldn’t mind if he kissed just like Kyle.

But instead of getting angry, he simply nodded. “Okay, what can’t we do anymore?”

“You know.” She waved vaguely, motioning to the space between them. He was still on the step below hers, so they were almost at eye level. “No, I don’t know. What?”

“Kissing. We can’t kiss anymore.”

“Sure we can. But what you really mean is you don’t want us to make love.”

Somehow it would have been better if he’d said “sex” instead of “make love.” Sex was more impersonal. “Whatever. We can’t.”

“Why?”

It was a perfectly reasonable question. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a reasonable answer. Why couldn’t they have sex? Kyle was probably an expert at it, not to mention the fact that he wouldn’t expect much from her-emotionally. They could have a fling. She’d never had one before. She wasn’t sure how one went about arranging it. Did she ask specifically? “Gee, Kyle, how about some cheap meaningless sex for a few weeks. Just until I’m back on my feet?” No, she couldn’t say anything like that. Could she? Maybe she was supposed to simply hint broadly.

She searched his face. By reputation, the Haynes brothers were interested in a good time and nothing else. She could take advantage of that, then get back to her regularly scheduled life. She could be just one of countless women.

Sandy drew in a deep breath, then let it go slowly. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t the fling type. She was far too responsible. She had her life planned out and Kyle Haynes wasn’t part of her program.

“If you’re trying to think of a good reason we shouldn’t become lovers, you’re taking an awful long time,” he said.

She couldn’t risk telling him the truth. “The list is so long, I don’t know where to start.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

But he wasn’t smiling as he spoke the words, and there was something in his eyes, something dark and undefined that made her feel unsettled. As if he had a secret he was close to revealing. Sandy wasn’t sure if she wanted to know what it was, or if she should pretend she couldn’t see it. Before she could decide, he blinked and the secret was gone.

“Your problem,” he said, leaning close enough to make her want to kiss him, “is that you’ve forgotten how to have fun.”

“You said that before. It’s still not true.” He had the audacity to laugh. “You’ve got your life so well planned, you wouldn’t know a spontaneous thought if it bit you on the butt. Maybe if you stopped organizing the world for everyone else, you would have a little time to find some happiness.”

He was right. She hated that. With a flash of insight that made her uncomfortable, she realized she could graciously agree with what he was saying and try to change, or she could get angry. It was easier to get angry. Easier because acknowledging how empty her life was would force her to face the truth.

She’d learned early she couldn’t depend on anyone but herself. Trusting others left her open for heartbreak and loneliness. But Kyle didn’t know that about her. He only saw Sensible Sandy who refused to have fun. He didn’t see the way she worried about her children, her job and holding it all together. He didn’t see how she hated always being the bad guy. He didn’t see the fear.

“Who do you think you are?” she asked, stepping up onto the porch and backing away from him. “I don’t need you or any man telling me what to do. I’ve been on my own for the last two years. The children and I have survived very nicely without your interference.”

“Surviving isn’t the same as living. You’ve shut yourself off from the best parts of life.”

“That’s just your opinion. In my opinion, I’m doing just fine. I’ve been fine and I plan on continuing to be fine. Now I think it’s time for you to leave.”

She held her breath and waited. A part of her wanted him to turn and go, but a voice inside cried out for him to force her into admitting the truth. She was desperate for some happiness, but she couldn’t give up control to anyone. It wasn’t safe. Thomas had taught her that, and before him, her mother. She had to be responsible for herself and her children. There wasn’t anyone else she could depend upon.

Kyle stared at her, then he reached forward and grabbed her left hand. He tugged until she stumbled closer. Behind them, she could hear the sound of a TV show blaring through the open window.

He continued to hold on to her hand, then he glanced down and rubbed his thumb over her wedding ring. “You ever get lonely? You ever get tired of being the only one? Don’t you ever want someone to help you, to care about you?”

She snatched her hand back. Yes, her heart cried. But she was too afraid to speak the words. Kyle tempted her with what she could never have. “Wanting it isn’t the same as having it happen.”

“Maybe it’s right here in front of you, but you’re too stubborn or too scared to see what’s being offered. ‘Night.”

He turned and walked down the stairs, then disappeared into the darkness. Sandy stared after him, watching until she saw the light click on in the gatehouse. She stood there, abandoned, feeling the brush of his fingers against her wedding band and fighting the loneliness that threatened to consume her soul.

Grilled-cheese sandwiches and a tossed salad hadn’t sounded so bad when she’d first suggested the children make lunch, but now, surrounded by the mess, she realized she’d made a mistake. Sandy stared at the cooked bits of cheese and the burnt spill next to the right front burner. She had no idea what it could be because they weren’t supposed to have cooked a liquid. There were dishes piled in the sink and open containers of salad dressing and cheese on the counter. Her feet crunched on the crumbs underfoot. Exchanging cooking for cleanup had not been one of her better ideas.

It was Kyle’s fault. The kids had been bugging her all morning and she’d just wanted them to go outside and leave her in peace. If he hadn’t spoiled them by entertaining them, they wouldn’t have been so bored with their usual activities in the afternoon and they wouldn’t have gotten on her nerves, so she wouldn’t have suggested they cook lunch and she clean up. It was also his fault because she wasn’t as patient as she usually tried to be because she couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss.

Sandy crossed to the window and moved the new crisp blue-and-white curtains aside. If she tilted her head slightly to see around the big oak tree in her front yard, she had a view of her entire driveway and the back of Kyle’s house. Even now, he was outside with her kids, washing his car as he did every week. A warm afternoon breeze fluttered through the open window, bringing with it the faint sound of laughter. They were having a good time with him. Only a really horrible mother would begrudge her children that.

Sandy sat down at the dirty table and sighed. Okay, she was a bad mother. There was a part of her that resented her kids’ easy relationship with Kyle. For her, nothing about him was simple. It didn’t seem fair. Not only did they get to spend time with him, but he really seemed to like it. She half suspected he’d changed his work schedule just to be with them. Since the kiss-which in her mind often appeared in capital letters as “THE KISS”-he’d been working nights, coming home shortly after dawn, sleeping until about one in the afternoon, then hanging out with her children. As if he were their father.

She’d tried to ignore the situation. However, that was difficult when every other sentence Nichole spoke started with “Kyle says…” followed by whatever bit of wisdom he’d imparted. Lindsay was still pursuing him with the fervor of an old maid watching her last, best hope slip away. At least that was amusing and almost made up for her concern. But it was Blake who kept her from approaching Kyle and telling him to back off. Her quiet, uncommunicative, withdrawn son had started laughing.

Not a lot, not all the time, but enough for her to know that he was coming out of his shell. And she would do anything to see Blake return to the bright, outgoing boy he’d been before his father had rejected him. She would even admit Kyle Haynes into her life and accept the pain and suffering that would surely follow.

Sandy rose from the table and collected the last of the dishes. After setting them on the counter, she opened the dishwasher and started loading. A half-guilty smile tugged at her mouth. She hadn’t rinsed the plates first. She who yelled that command every night as the children cleaned the kitchen. Unrinsed glasses followed, along with the silverware. When the dishwasher was full, she poured in the soap and started the cycle. Then she straightened and stared at the machine. If the most wicked thing she’d done in her life was to put plates in the dishwasher without rinsing them first, Kyle was right: she wouldn’t recognize a spontaneous thought if it came up and bit her, and she desperately needed a little fun in her life.

But how? And with whom? Those two questions brought her mind back to the kiss. And Kyle. Why had he done it? Why had she responded? Where were they going to go now?

She capped the salad-dressing bottles and stuck them in the refrigerator. Next, she put away the bread. Finally, she reached for a dishcloth to wipe off the counters. But instead of tackling the task, she leaned against the tile. The second question was easiest to answer. She’d responded because Kyle’s embrace had sparked some incredible passion buried deep inside of her. She’d never felt anything quite like it before. With Thomas, making love had often been spontaneous and usually fulfilling, but she’d never felt swept away or compelled beyond reason. She would never have considered doing it outside on the porch where practically anyone could have seen them. Maybe Thomas would have liked her better if she’d been more like that.

Was her response unique to Kyle or had she reacted so passionately simply because she hadn’t been with a man in so long? Sandy turned and began wiping off the counter. She collected the crumbs, then tossed them in the trash. Next, she tackled the kitchen table. When everything was gleaming, she rinsed the dishcloth and wrung it out.

She walked back to the window and moved the curtain aside. Her three children were still helping Kyle with his car. She watched them and wondered when she’d gotten left out of the loop. Was it when she’d asked him to leave and implied he should never come back? Or was it before that? Was being out of the loop the price she paid for being in control?

The back door opened and Nichole ran in. “What time is it, Mommy?”

She glanced at the clock next to the oven. “Nearly two-thirty. Why?”

“I’m ‘posed to be at Mandy’s by three. We’re going swimming. Don’t you remember?”

Sandy reached out and touched her youngest’s red curls. “Of course I do. Go get your bathing suit and a towel, and I’ll take you right over.”

Nichole grinned, then started up the stairs. Sandy followed more slowly. Nichole and Mandy had quickly become friends. Elizabeth had been wonderful, as had Travis. In fact, all of Kyle’s family had gone out of their way to make her and her children feel welcome. Without her noticing it, he’d drawn her into a world where people cared about one another. She smiled wistfully as she remembered the last time she’d taken Nichole over to Mandy’s. She’d walked Nichole to the front door. Before she knocked, she’d glanced in the window and seen Elizabeth and Travis kissing on the living room sofa. Travis had held his wife tenderly in his arms.

Sandy hadn’t known what to do. Before she could decide, Nichole, who hadn’t seen the adults, pressed the bell. Elizabeth and Travis had separated, thenElizabeth had smiled as her husband had whispered something in her ear.

Sandy suspected it had been a promise to continue what had been interrupted.

Sandy walked into her bedroom. The furniture was in place and most of the boxes had been unpacked. Except for the stack of pictures still waiting to be hung on the wall, no one could tell she’d only moved in a month ago. She changed her T-shirt for one that hadn’t been stained by coffee, then pulled off her headband and reached for her brush. A shaft of sunlight spilling through the open window caught the diamond in her wedding band and made it sparkle. She put the brush down and stared at her ring. She still remembered the day Thomas had slipped the simple gold-and-diamond band on her finger. She’d had so many hopes for their future.

What had gone wrong? Where had she made the first mistake? She’d been so sure he was the right one for her. If only she’d known he was more interested in having fun than in being a husband or father. If only she’d known how lonely she would feel years before he’d actually died.

She touched the ring and remembered the feel of Kyle’s hand holding hers. He’d rubbed the ring as he’d asked if she ever felt the loneliness. Maybe, instead of reacting with fear and anger, she should have told him the truth.

Sandy walked to the window. From the second story, she could see into Kyle’s backyard. They’d finished with the car and were now digging in the garden and laughing. Who was this man who stole her children’s hearts and made her forget her promises to herself?

Slowly, she drew the ring from her finger. It came off easily. The thin band of paler skin was the only proof it had been there. She’d thought she would feel naked, but she didn’t feel anything at all. The circle of gold rested in the palm of her right hand. Thomas had already been gone two years. Was it time to let go? She didn’t know.

She walked to the jewelry box resting on her cherry-wood dresser. She pulled open the top drawer and placed the ring inside. She would keep it there for today and see how she felt about not wearing her ring. If it bothered her too much, she could always put it back on.

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