Authors: Hope Ramsay
“Oh my God, no, Jeff. The water is—”
He didn’t hear the rest of her admonition before the water closed over his head. Holy God, it was freezing cold. But then again, it was only May. The summer hadn’t yet warmed the water, which was also dark and murky.
He frog kicked down, fighting the stream’s current, until he reached the rocky riverbed. The pool wasn’t all that deep—maybe eight or nine feet—but he was totally blind. He felt along the bottom, encountering mostly round river rocks and scree. But one of the stones had an oddly flat shape. He palmed it, and with lungs burning, he pushed off the bottom.
* * *
Melissa stood by the water’s edge with her heart pounding in her ears. Her racing pulse had more to do with the magnificent sight of Jeff’s naked bod than her fear for his safety, although this time of year the water was pretty cold. Good thing she’d brought a blanket and some beach towels. Not to mention the box of condoms.
Which just might come in handy after all.
She was pondering what came next when his head popped up above the water. He wore a big grin, like he’d proved something to someone. Such a guy.
“Guess you just discovered that it’s probably too cold to go diving for relics this time of year.” These were not exactly the first words her heart wanted to say. But they were what came out when she let her brain take over.
“I found something,” he said as he swam toward her.
“You found something?” Her heart, already beating hard, began to race now in anticipation of him reaching the shallow water. Full-frontal nudity worked for her. Although she had to remind herself not to be disappointed. The water was probably no more than fifty-five degrees.
He stood up, water sluicing down his chest and abs and…other parts. He held out his treasure in his open palm, but Melissa’s gaze was locked on his family jewels.
He seemed unaffected by her intimate study. “It’s an arrowhead. Who knew?”
“What?” Her brain was starting to work again, sort of.
He raised his head and seemed to notice for the first time that she was totally ogling him.
“Enjoying the view?’’ He gave her a wolfish, predatory grin.
“Yes, I am, as a matter of fact.”
He took a step forward. She stepped back. “Uh, look, um, you’re all wet. And…”
Oh, bad move on her part, because he lunged and caught her in his cold, wet embrace. An embrace that immediately kindled an undeniable heat inside her.
“I could throw you in,” he whispered in her ear, setting off hot, freezing shivers.
“Uh, please don’t. I didn’t bring a change of clothes.”
“Oh, well, we can make sure your clothes don’t get wet.”
That was probably a challenge, but she wasn’t getting naked to go swimming. She had other ideas in mind. So she wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck, pressed her mouth against his, and gave him a hungry kiss. Taking charge of it this time made her feel powerful, especially when Jeff let out a small, inarticulate growl and then kissed his way down her throat to a spot right by her earlobe that more or less set her on fire.
She tilted her head and let him have access to the sensitive flesh, groaning out loud while she snaked her hands up through his wet hair and pulled him closer, losing her glasses in the process.
Who knew where they fell? She didn’t care as the world went out of focus, especially, a moment later, when Jeff snaked his hand under her T-shirt and cupped her breast. Blood pounded in her ears in a rhythm that echoed the rush of the stream at their feet.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered wetly against her neck, and she drank him up like it was happy hour at the Jaybird Café and Music Hall and the margaritas were half price. She let him touch her, and she touched him right back, running her hands over the muscles of his chest and then down his spine, cupping his hard backside. And suddenly standing there was not nearly enough. She wanted to feel the weight of him. On her. In her.
“There’s a blanket in the backpack,” she whispered against the stubble on his chin. She was kissing her way down his neck when she spoke.
“You brought a blanket? Why?”
“We needed a place to sit. You know, for the picnic.” She murmured the words across his collarbone. She was planning to take her mouth even lower, but he tilted her head up. His face was almost in focus even without her glasses. But it didn’t matter because she closed her eyes while she was kissing him. Plus he smelled really good. She buried her nose in his skin and took a deep breath.
“You’re a genius.” His words rumbled in his chest. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back.”
He took his body and his fabulous smell away for a moment, leaving her standing there blind and almost deaf and totally dumb.
“Uh, wait,” he said from across the beach. “You brought more than a blanket.”
She didn’t even blush when he started laughing. “I think we’re going to be here for a while.”
Thank goodness he returned a moment later, spreading the blanket on the sand and tossing himself and the box of condoms down onto it. Then he leaned back on his elbows, the condoms right beside him.
Even all blurry, a naked Jeff made her burn. So hot that she needed to take off her clothes. Now.
She pulled her T-shirt over her head and shucked out of her jeans with a little flourish, turned on by the fact that he was watching her every move. When she finally joined him on the blanket, he grabbed her by the shoulders and tilted her back. “You’re killing me,” he said in a gruff voice right before he covered her body with his own.
Finally they were skin to skin, chest to breast, sex to sex, heart to heart.
ood God. She had actually carried through with her crazy plan to have sex with Jeff Talbert. In public, no less. She had wanted to be brave, but she’d never truly believed she could be
But why not? Jeff was delicious and erotic. And…well…lots of things that her heart shouldn’t be thinking right now. Hearts had no business doing the thinking anyway. Brains were much better for that sort of thing.
She wanted more, but he hadn’t invited her back to his cabin. She hadn’t invited him up to the apartment above the bookstore either. But that was only because the apartment needed a total spring cleaning.
Knowing Jeff, he’d take one look at it and feel the need to reorganize before they could get naked. So she spent Sunday afternoon scrubbing her bathroom, straightening the living room, hosing down the kitchen, and putting fresh sheets on the bed.
Her mind was preoccupied reliving those moments by the plunge pool. But as evening approached, it wandered and became fixated on her phone. She expected him to call. She wanted him to call. In fact, she was stupidly hoping he would call so she could invite him over for a pizza or something else, with the emphasis on the something else.
Maybe she should call him? She was being brave, after all. She was taking charge. She was about to do just that when the doorbell at the back entrance to the apartment rang, sending her heart racing. She sprang to the door, threw it open…
And found her BFFs, Courtney Wallace and Arwen Jacobs, standing there looking concerned and positively grave.
“Uh, hi,” Melissa said.
“Hi,” Courtney answered, peeking around Melissa’s shoulder at the freshly dusted surfaces in her living room. “Expecting company?”
“Uh, no. Come on in.”
“No,” Courtney said. “We’re making an intervention.”
“And taking you to the Jaybird for drinks and dinner,” Arwen added.
“And we want to know who the hell this new guy is. Gracie called us both this afternoon. Apparently the Liberty Avenue Merchants Association has taken note that you’ve hired someone to redo Secondhand Prose. They’ve informed Gracie of this because, you know, Gracie is their fearless leader,” Courtney said.
“And this afternoon Poppy Marchand came into the diner and told Gracie that she’d seen you this morning up at the Old Laurel Chapel, holding hands with someone,” said Arwen.
Melissa’s face began to burn.
Courtney turned toward Arwen. “Note the red face. The clean apartment. The fact that she’s wearing a pair of common, ordinary blue jeans and a shirt that doesn’t have one of those fairytale illustrations all over it. This is serious.”
Arwen nodded. “Who is he?”
The answer to that question was so complex Melissa didn’t even know where to start. So she changed the subject. “You know,” she said, grabbing her purse from the hook beside the door, “margaritas sound great. Let’s go.”
Ten minutes later they strolled into the Jaybird Café and Music Hall, located in an old warehouse on the south side of town. Juni Petersen, whose family owned the Jaybird, had reserved a corner table in the back for Melissa and her friends, proving that Juni was also in on this intervention—a big problem, because if Juni knew about Jeff, then everyone would know about him by tomorrow morning.
The margaritas were also waiting for them when they arrived.
Melissa sank into a hard-backed chair and snagged her drink. She took a healthy swallow, the salt and sweet bursting on her tongue, just as Courtney said, “All right, we want all the details. Pippa Custis apparently told Gracie that your new assistant is ‘the bomb.’”
Melissa put down her drink. “The bomb, really?”
“Well, you know, Pippa is sixty, and she’s trying to be cool. She thinks he’s cute.”
“Is he?” Arwen asked.
“C’mon, guys, he’s just a guy.” Melissa turned away. “Who’s singing tonight?”
“Earth to Melissa, it’s Sunday, remember? Karaoke night.”
“Oh, uh, yeah.” Melissa’s insides broiled. A girl in her situation—having just gotten all sweaty with a guy she didn’t know that well—needed time for reflection, not the third degree from her friends. How much of what had happened today was plain garden-variety lust? And how much was something else?
Her heart said there was something else there, but her heart was so notoriously wrong about stuff like this. She probably shouldn’t have done what she did today. It was foolish. Reckless even.
Oh, but it had felt like heaven.
“Oh my God, she’s got a dreamy look on her face,” Arwen said.
Courtney touched Melissa’s hand where it rested on the table. “We’re concerned about you. We all know about the financial mess your grandmother left you. So when it gets around town that you’ve hired some guy no one knows to help you fix up the store, it’s natural for us to worry. Who is this guy? Where is he from? What kind of business plan have you come up with to deal with the mess Harriet left you?”
Melissa picked up her drink and drained it in several long gulps, but chugging her drink didn’t make her friends disappear.
Oh hell. She wasn’t going to be able to keep this secret. But she needed more fortification before she spilled the beans. She waggled her glass at Rory Ahearn, the bartender, indicating another round for all.
“Coming right up, luv,” he said in his sexy Irish accent.
“You’re stalling,” Courtney said.
“Okay, it all started last week, with Hugo.”
“Hugo? The cat?” Arwen’s big brown eyes widened.
“Is there anyone else in my life named Hugo?” Melissa said.
“What does the cat have to do with this guy you’ve hired?” Courtney demanded.
“Last Friday a guy walked into the store, picked up Hugo, and bought a copy of
“No way,” they said in unison.
“Yes way. He held Hugo for a long while, and the cat actually purred.”
Juni Petersen overheard this because she was delivering their drinks. “Someone made friends with Hugo? Really?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah.” Melissa snatched up her drink and took a big gulp.
“Who?” Juni asked.
“A guy. And it’s not just Hugo. Dickens likes him, too.”
There was a moment of silence around the table. Dickens didn’t like anyone. It was a well-known fact.
“Oh,” Juni said, “that’s a sign for sure.” She cocked her head and gave Melissa a goofy stare.
Meanwhile Courtney and Arwen nodded like a couple of bobblehead dolls. It was totally annoying the way her friends believed the stuff Juni said. Juni was into crystals and manifesting and reading people’s auras.
“Okay, Melissa, stop beating around the bush,” Courtney said. “We need a name.”
“His name is Jeff Talbert.”
“And…” Courtney pressed, as if she were cross-examining Melissa.
“And what?” Melissa said.
“And what else do you know about him?”
“Not much.” Except he knew how to kiss, and he knew how to touch, and for a little while he’d made her believe there was a way to salvage the bookstore.
“And you hired him anyway?” Courtney asked. “What is he? A librarian? A contractor? An interior designer? What?”
Oh, crap. She searched for a handy lie and came up empty. “I didn’t hire him,” she finally admitted.
“You didn’t?” Juni and her BFFs said more or less in unison.