Authors: Georgia Bockoven
“Just do it.”
She did. He touched the napkin to her tongue and finished wiping her chin. “This is the first time I’ve been this messy,” she said suspiciously.
He leaned forward until their noses were only inches apart. For one sweet, heart-pounding second she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead he looked deeply into her eyes and said softly, “It’s a perfect night for first times, don’t you think?”
The implication was his, the decision was hers.
ATHERINE GLANCED AT THE DASHBOARD CLOCK AS
they turned into Rick’s driveway. It was almost one, but she was so energized it could have been the middle of the day instead of the middle of the night. Even though they’d been together longer than they ever had before, even though they’d talked and laughed nonstop and she’d finally had the chance to tell him about her crazy Uncle John, she still wasn’t ready to say good night.
She liked being with Rick. She wanted to tell him clever anecdotes because she felt good when her story elicited his smile. And she loved listening to him. He had a deep, resonating voice that, at times, was like a caress.
“Want to come in for a cup of coffee?” Rick asked when he’d turned off the engine.
The look that accompanied the words told her that he didn’t want the evening to end, either.
“Coffee sounds good.”
“Or I could open a bottle of Randle’s Roost merlot…”
“A man after my own heart.” The tired cliché came across more serious than she’d intended, but she let it go. Rick wasn’t the kind of man who looked for encouragement in casual comments.
Blue whipped his tail in greeting when Catherine came around the truck, including her in his welcome as if she were a member of the family. She stopped to scratch his ears. “How does he know which days you’ll be home?”
“I’ve never been able to figure that out, but he’s never wrong. He has full-time access to both houses through our garages, but if I’m off-shift and just gone for the day, it doesn’t matter what time I come home, he’s here waiting for me. He’s even got a system for figuring out when I’ve been called in for overtime or I’m working a trade, and he stays with Sandra and Walt.”
She thought about going home and how empty her house would seem that night. She missed Lynda. But it was more than walking into an empty house alone—it was wanting to be exactly where she was.
Rick offered to let her wait in the living room while he went to get the wine, but she followed him into the kitchen instead. He gave her the bottle and opener and got out crackers and cheese. They worked together as if they’d done so a hundred times before, Catherine taking down the wine glasses and then a plate for the snack while Rick took out the cutting board and sliced the cheese.
“You must like to cook,” Catherine said, watching him.
“Why do you say that?”
“This kitchen. It’s fantastic.”
“All show. I’m the king of soup-label recipes. Just ask my crew.”
“I don’t believe you. No one owns a stove like this for show.”
He chuckled. “I bought it because we have one just like it at the firehouse and I like the way it cooks.”
“You cook at the firehouse?”
“And mop floors and mow lawns and wash windows.” He held out a piece of cheese for her to taste. “It’s part of the job.”
The cheese was spicy, with a hint of garlic and a touch of heat she attributed to the green specks liberally sprinkled throughout. A perfect choice for the merlot. “So you’re busy cleaning toilet bowls and cooking meals in between rescuing people from fires and performing CPR on heart-attack patients?”
“Keeps us humble.”
“Are all firefighters like you?”
He opened the crackers and scattered them across the plate. “In what way?”
He considered her question. “I don’t know if I’d call it self-effacing. I think it’s more a sense of being grateful for having a job that lets us do what we do.”
“How can you be so cavalier about risking your life?”
“It’s my job.” He struggled for a better answer. “It’s what I do. Besides, not all calls are life-and-death situations. Sometimes it’s a kid with a finger stuck in a pipe or a pan someone left on the stove.”
“And sometimes it’s a man who’s drowning in a swollen river or a propane tank that exploded because someone tried to use a barbecue to heat their house.”
Rick eyed her suspiciously. “Who have you been talking to?”
“Brian.” How had she missed the small scar on his chin or the way his eyes narrowed when he was deep in thought?
“Of course. I’d forgotten he did a sleepover with us.” He chuckled. “Steve said Brian kept them up half the night asking questions.”
“He talked about it for days afterward. Every time he came to see Lynda.”
“Did he also tell you how boring it is around there between calls?” Rick asked.
“You’re talking about a young man who idolizes you, Rick Sawyer. Boredom isn’t in the equation.” She poured the wine and handed him a glass. “Now if I could just find a job that interests me half as much as yours does you, I’d be a happy woman.”
“You’re job hunting?”
“It’s that or go stir-crazy when Lynda goes back to school.” Not exactly a lie, but not the complete truth either. “I’m only going to go part-time for now and then switch to full-time when she’s out of her pressure garments.”
“What kind of job?”
“My background is human resources, but I’m looking at everything.”
“I know of a part-time job that’s opening up at the union office. Shirley and Pam have worked there for years and could fill you in on the details if you’re interested.”
“You mean the firefighters’ union?” The way she felt about organized labor, she couldn’t imagine working for a union, but to be polite, she showed interest.
“They’re in the city,” he added. “So it might be a longer commute than you wanted to make.”
He was providing her a way out. Obviously she hadn’t been as subtle in her question as she’d intended. “I’ll call tomorrow. Pam was the woman’s name?”
He gave her a knowing smile. “Or Shirley.”
“Did you know Brian has decided he wants to be a firefighter?” She held up her glass and brought it to his. “His father is going to have a fit when he finds out.”
He touched his glass to hers, the crystal making a crisp, bell-like sound. “Why is that?”
“Peter has such high hopes for Brian. He made almost perfect scores on his SATs and—” She almost choked on the words when she realized what she was saying. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
“Yes, you did,” he said without judgment. “I’m not color-blind, Catherine. I know my shirt has a blue collar. And I know the kind of baggage that color brings with it.”
“I’m sorry.” If she could have arranged for a hole in the floor to open right then and there, she would have gladly jumped into it.
“Forget it,” he said easily. He took a sip of wine.
“Never.” How could she have been so insensitive?
“Look, you said what you feel. Would it help if I told you it doesn’t come as a surprise?”
How did he know? Had she said something? Acted some way? “I really am sorry. I feel like such a snob.”
“You need to understand something here, Catherine. I don’t need outside opinion to confirm my worthiness. I carry that inside. For me, knowing that what I do makes a difference is a lot more important than how other people might see me or how much money I might have in the bank at any given moment. I know you find this hard to believe, but money isn’t important to me. It never has been.”
She put her glass on the counter. “I think that’s my cue to go slinking off into the night.”
“Only if you let it be.”
“First I have to tell you something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a long time now. I’m well aware that Lynda wouldn’t be where she is without you. Neither would I. I will never be able to thank you enough. You came along—”
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it isn’t necessary.” He settled in close and gave her a small, intimate smile. “I know what I’m up against and I’m not the least bit worried I can’t handle it.”
She could see the flecks of gold in his eyes and
smell a hint of smoke from the campfire. The top button on his shirt was open and there were gray hairs at his temples. Her heart did a funny little tap dance against her ribs as she took all this in.
She would have been all right if she hadn’t looked at his lips, if she hadn’t wondered how they would feel against her own…but most of all, if she hadn’t tilted her chin up and swayed forward and let out a sigh of longing.
The kiss opened the door she thought she’d barricaded. Reason, rationale, determination were like dandelion seeds in the wind. Her mind yielded to her senses and she was swept away by a deep yearning.
He took control with the second kiss, bringing her into his arms and holding her as if he’d held her a hundred times before. She fitted herself to him, becoming instantly, almost unbearably aroused. “This is insanity,” she murmured against his lips.
“Too soon,” he agreed.
“We shouldn’t be doing this.” She opened her mouth, tasting, testing, taking him in. Her hips moved against his, gently and then harder.
“It’s going to complicate things between us.” He put his hands on her waist. “That’s the last thing I want.”
“Me too.” Her breasts swelled with the need to be touched.
He cupped her buttocks and brought her tight against him. “I want you, Catherine,” he whispered into her ear. “More than I’ve ever wanted anyone or anything.”
She pulled back to look at him. “I feel the same way. It’s wrong…it’s insanity,” she repeated. “But I don’t care.”
“Then you’re sure?”
He took her hand and led her to the bedroom. She stood next to the king-size bed as he undressed her, removing the layers of her clothing the way she had opened his present. He touched her skin as if it were silk and he had on a work-roughened glove—gently, so very gently. She caught her lip between her teeth to keep still when he softly lapped at her nipple with his tongue. Wave after wave of desire and need spread through her body.
Unable to stay still any longer, she impatiently pulled his shirt from his jeans, unbuttoned it, and ran her hands over his chest and down his arms. Her fingers slowed as they lifted and dipped over the ridges and valleys of his scars. He caught her hands with his own and ran his thumb over her palm, kissing her ear, the hollow at the base of her throat, and the narrow, flat spot between her breasts.
“I’ve imagined you like this,” he admitted. “A hundred times. Only I never got it right. Not once.” He looked into her eyes. “You are more beautiful than I could ever conceive. You take my breath away, Catherine.”
Suddenly self-conscious, she surreptitiously tightened her stomach to hide what she knew to be an imperfection.
“Don’t do that,” he said in response. “Can’t you feel how perfectly we fit the other way?” He put his
hand flat against her belly. “I like knowing I could rest my head here and not hurt you. Your softness, your curves are more erotic than hard angles and bone could ever be.” His hand moved lower, and lower still, until his fingers were pressed into her moistness.
She let out a small cry of surprise that turned to pleasure as he moved a finger against the hard nub he’d unerringly found.
She was already near a climax. When she felt herself at the edge, she tried to pull away, to wait for him, but couldn’t. Instead she tumbled uncontrollably into a series of rapid contractions that sent a hot burst of intense, coiling pleasure deep inside her belly and left her gasping for air.
She wanted more. She wanted to feel him inside of her, needed to feel him. She reached for the button on his jeans but couldn’t get it open. “Help me,” she told him, a small plea in her voice.
He lifted her onto the bed, slipped out of the rest of his clothes, and joined her. He made love to her with a tenderness and understanding that had nothing to do with show or technique or locker-room bravado, never mentioning the constriction of using protection or complaining about its necessity. She didn’t understand at first, and kept expecting the mechanics that modern male experts had dictated were necessary to please a woman. Instead, Rick tested and waited and pursued and whispered his own excitement and pleasure into her ear, making her feel like a true partner in lovemaking for the first time in her life.
He didn’t wait until they were finished to ask her if she’d climaxed again; he sensed when she was close, and moved to make the peak more intense and long-lasting.
Afterward, sated and pleasantly exhausted, they lay curled in each other’s arms. Rick kissed her forehead and then each closed eye. “Do you have anything to do today that can’t be put off?”
“Today?” she repeated sleepily.
“Yes, today—the sun’s going to be coming through this window in a couple of hours.”
She tried to remember her schedule, but nothing stood out. “I can’t think of anything. Why are you asking?”
“We need to work out what we’re going to tell Lynda.”
She opened her eyes and frowned. “About what?”
Catherine propped herself up on her elbow and looked down at him. “We’re not going to tell her anything. Why would we?”
“Because I’d rather be up-front with her than have her think something is going on behind her back. There’s no telling what she’d come up with on her own.”
“But nothing is going on. Or at least nothing will be going on when she gets home.” The nebulous fear that they were making a mistake tonight had found its focus. They’d each known they were crossing a line. What they hadn’t known was that their lines were different. Rick believed they’d gone
somewhere together; she’d accepted they were ending a friendship.
He sat up, his back against the mission-style headboard. “This is it, then? Is that what you’re saying? We’re not going to see each other anymore?”
Feeling more naked than she had when they were making love, she pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts. “I thought you understood.”
“The only thing I understand is that I love you.”
She recoiled at the words. “You can’t. How could you? You hardly know me.”
He caught her moving hands and held them still. “I’ve loved you almost from the moment we met.”
“You never said anything.” Her panic was like a weight in her chest, growing heavier with every word.
“I was waiting for Lynda to grow stronger,” he said simply. “She had to come first.”
Catherine was the only one who had ever put Lynda first. It was something Jack had never considered, let alone managed. She didn’t—she couldn’t—believe Rick, even though she knew he was telling the truth. “What happened to make you change your mind?”