Authors: Bronwyn Green
Tags: #Romantic Suspense, #Thriller
Without warning, he lowered his head and lightly brushed his lips across hers and again with more purpose when she didn’t resist. Warm and firm, his mouth moved over hers, coaxing and caressing,
Her pulse beat like hummingbird wings against her throat, and she lifted her hands to his chest. Heat rose from his body, along with the subtle scent of soap and something that was entirely Zander. Liquid heat flooded her body as she fought the urge to drag him against her and wrap her legs around his waist. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this empty, and she wanted nothing more than for him to fill her. To ease this ache and chase away all the fear and uncertainty swirling around her. She raised her hands and drove her fingers through his hair angling his head and parting her lips, welcoming him inside her mouth like she wanted to welcome him inside her body.
Reality came crashing down as he pressed her against the door. Zander. She was kissing Zander. Why was she kissing Zander? She pushed against his chest. Slowly, he raised his head, and Tessa took a great gulp of air.
Rational thought returned without the distraction of his lips against hers. “What the hell was that?” she demanded.
He grinned, and she tried not to let her bones melt at the sight of it.
“Desensitization therapy. The answer to our problem.”
“What?” She blinked, trying to get her mind to catch up with her mouth. It was nearly impossible when she could still taste him on her lips. “What problem? What are you talking about?”
“When a client has an aversion to something, often a therapist will introduce the stimulus in small increments until the client becomes comfortable. Desensitized. The increments increase until the aversion no longer exists.”
“Are you insane?” she snapped. She wasn’t as angry with him as she was with herself. She’d wanted more. Even now, her body tried to betray her by inching closer to him. Her pulse pounded in her head, and her nipples ached in frustration. Her clit throbbed, and she’d bet her underwear were damp. All from a single kiss. She was pathetic. She leaned back. “So you’re planning to spend the next twenty-four hours kissing me until I don’t jump when you touch me?”
“That was the plan.” He was serious.
Shaking her head, she turned from him and finished unlocking her door. “On what planet could this possibly be a good idea?”
“On this one.” She heard the smile in his voice. With gentle hands, Zander turned her to face him again. He lowered his head, but his eyes remained locked on hers, like deep-green beacons, leading her toward shore. Her chest rose and fell as she tried to control her rapid breathing. He was so close each inhalation dragged her needy breasts against his chest. Pure torture but she couldn’t bring herself to move away.
Cupping her cheek, he brushed the pad of his thumb across her lower lip. That simple touch made her want so much more. He slid his fingers into her hair and tenderly angled up her face. “So beautiful,” he murmured.
It was all Tessa could do not to close her eyes and lean into his hand. She inhaled deeply, drawing him in. His husky voice caressed her senses, and her stomach tightened in anticipation.
She should walk away from him. Away from the danger he posed. If she let him, he could shatter her hard-won self-control in nothing flat. She needed to get out of there, but her body refused to obey. Instead, it waited motionless for Zander to make his next move, silently begging him to touch her. Aching to feel his hands on her.
Still holding her gaze, he leaned forward, giving her every opportunity to back away, but she couldn’t. He hovered a fraction of an inch from her lips, and his warm breath feathered across her skin. Expectation built, a palpable force in her middle.
He took her mouth, softly searching. Teasing. Tasting. Gentle but insistent. She responded, pressing into his kiss, wanting to push herself against his body. Every muscle trembled as she held herself back from what she really wanted.
He raised his other hand and skimmed the side of her neck. The kiss grew more insistent, deeper, and she opened beneath his touch. She grew lightheaded as he explored her mouth, steadying herself with her hands on his waist. The warmth of his body seeped through his shirt and into her palms. Melting against him, she drew on his tongue.
He broke away, his eyes glittering darkly. She wondered if he was as affected as she was. Just as quickly, his expression changed. He straightened and grinned.
Obviously, not. But why should he be? Compared to his usual dates, she was as bland as they came. Vanilla. Just because she’d been into the kiss didn’t mean he had. He was just a guy trying to keep his job, and she was trying to help him. The kiss was a means to an end, not a declaration of attraction.
And why would it be? He called her angel as if he meant it. As if he actually thought she was pure and innocent. Generally, he treated her as if she ought to be standing on a pedestal. But this kiss… For a moment, she felt as though he truly wanted her. She’d felt as though she were something other than his virtuous, next-door neighbor. Something more than a friend. Someone he could be interested in.
“So what do you think?” he asked. He stared at her through heavy-lidded eyes, looking as though he’d just woken up. It was a good look.
Thinking clearly had suddenly become more difficult, and heat curled low in her belly. “Of the kiss?”
He smirked. “I was referring to the plan, but we can talk about the kiss if you want.”
“Jerk.” She turned away and pushed open the door, not wanting him to see the blush that crept over her skin.
He followed her into the living room and flopped on the couch, legs wide, arm draped across the back. The poster boy for casual sex. He sat silently, watching her pace. She had too much pent up frustration to sit.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He didn’t look any different than he usually did. He wore his weekend uniform—worn jeans and a T-shirt. As he shifted, she could make out the play of muscles beneath the soft fabric as she tried to ignore what lay beneath. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen him dressed like this before. But her awareness was acutely sharpened, all because he decided to dabble with behavioral theory.
So he’d kissed her. He was her friend. If it helped him keep his job, it wasn’t that big a deal. Right? It wasn’t as if she planned to sleep with him. Besides, judging from his reaction when she’d returned his kiss, he obviously wasn’t as attracted to her as she was to him. Maybe, she’d been misreading his signals all along. What she’d assumed was mutual desire was nothing more than her wishful thinking.
This was just one friend doing a favor for another friend. Wasn’t it just last night that she thought pretending to be his lover would allow her to satisfy her curiosity without the messiness of a relationship? Wasn’t that exactly what she wanted? Her attraction to him made the situation far more complicated than it needed to be.
Zander smothered a laugh as Tessa stalked to the kitchen and glared into the refrigerator. Pulling out a couple bottles of beer, she opened them and returned to the couch. Still frowning, she sank onto the opposite cushion. Her fingers grazed his as she handed him a bottle, but he wanted more than the innocent slide of her hand against his.
He took a pull off the beer and watched her as intently as she watched him. She hadn’t slapped him across the face, which he supposed was a good sign. But she hadn’t really said anything, either. She raised the bottle to her mouth, and he couldn’t help but stare, remembering the sensation of her soft lips against his.
Lowering the bottle, she cleared her throat. “So let me get this straight. You think randomly kissing me will make me less jumpy?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, taking another swallow. “You’ll be used to me.”
“I’m already used to you,” she objected.
“If we get accustomed to being more physical, the touching won’t come as a surprise. And when I kiss you, it won’t look as though we’ve never done it before.”
He followed the movement of her tongue as she moistened her lips. Oh yeah, he would definitely be kissing her again. Every chance he got.
Her brow furrowed, and she stared at him, clearly weighing her options.
This had seemed like such a good idea when he woke up this morning. He still thought it was. Hell, anything that gave him the excuse to be close to Tessa was a fantastic idea.
” She rolled the bottle between her palms, her ring clinking against the glass. “It’s not like it means anything.”
His first impulse was to protest. It meant something. How could kissing her not mean anything? Smothering a sigh, he forced himself to come back to reality. The only thing it meant was that he might not lose his job. He couldn’t allow himself to think this subterfuge with Tessa could lead to anything else. He wouldn’t use her like that. He could never offer her more than friendship.
She watched him as if wary of his next move.
“Right,” he conceded. “This is just for show.”
Pressing her lips together in a tight line, she studied him. What was going on in her head? He considered asking, but he figured she wouldn’t tell him if he did.
She relaxed into the cushion, and he wondered if was too soon to kiss her again. Probably. Sitting at opposite ends of the couch, they stared at each other. Theoretically, kissing her was supposed to help acclimate her to his touch. But now, the only thing he could think of was how badly he wanted to taste her.
Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to get a grip. “How about dinner?”
She blinked in apparent confusion. “What?”
He couldn’t blame her. He was sure he’d gone from looking as if he wanted to devour her, to being practically disinterested. “The party is tomorrow. I thought maybe we could go wander around the street fair and practice in public.”
Her gaze widened and darted toward the windows. She looked almost nervous.
“Are you okay, angel?”
“Yeah. Fine,” she rushed to say. Turning back to him, her lips curved in a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I hope this isn’t your subtle way of telling me you’ve got an exhibitionist bent.”
He laughed. “No. But for you, I’d develop one.”
For a moment, her smile held a hint of sadness, but just as quickly, it was gone. “That’s okay. No need to trouble yourself on my account.” She rose from the couch and brought their empty bottles to the kitchen. “Where do you want to eat?”
As if a switch had been thrown, their relationship returned to normal. The disquiet that had permeated the room a few moments earlier had vanished. It was as if he’d never kissed her. Was it that she simply didn’t care or that she was able to compartmentalize her feelings better than most people? This was a prime example of why he didn’t date women like Tessa—they were too damn hard to figure out.
“So you want to go?”
Resolve settled over her features, and she nodded.
“It’s a nice evening,” he said. “I figured we could browse the vendors and get something to eat while we walk around.”
* * * *
They fell into an easy rhythm as they wandered through the darkening streets. During the summer and fall, Oakdale’s independent artists and musicians set up booths on the weekends. Patrons could buy anything from a handmade sweater to a serenade. Tessa enjoyed wandering through the rows of merchants. Zander didn’t care for the crowds, but he was beginning to realize that there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do to make her smile.
He glanced at the woman by his side. In deference to the chilly weather, she wore a bulky sweater with a long, denim skirt. Quintessential librarian wear and she was still the sexiest woman he’d ever known. He wanted her arms wrapped around him. Again.
Zander couldn’t remember enjoying a date more, but every once in a while, a troubling sensation prodded him. It felt as though an invisible, third person had accompanied them on their walk. Solidifying his discomfort, Tessa often scanned the area around them as if searching for someone. The farther they moved from the house the jumpier she seemed.
“Who are you looking for?” he finally asked.
Her head whipped around to face him. “No one.” After a pause, she added, “I mean, no one in particular. There’s a jewelry maker that sometimes sets up here, and I didn’t want to miss her.”
He couldn’t believe Tessa would lie to him, but something didn’t feel right. He sighed inwardly. Maybe, it was just him. The more time he spent with her, the more he wanted to be with her—a feeling that was foreign and definitely disconcerting.
She peered intently around the area as they walked. She could be looking for the elusive jewelry maker, who Zander was beginning to doubt existed, but another more chilling thought occurred to him. Her behavior reminded him of Julia in the days before she died. An ex-lover had been stalking her for months. As the threats escalated, so did Julia’s fright. Worry knotted his gut. What the hell was going on with Tessa?
He slipped his arm around her waist and tugged her against his body as she stopped to listen to several college-aged guys playing acoustic guitar near the fountain. One of the musicians nodded in their direction. Zander recognized him from his Criminal Mind class.
Now seeming completely at ease, Tessa returned his embrace and laid her head on his shoulder as they stood silently listening to the music. If someone was threatening her, he wanted to know about it. And put an end to it. A lump of tenderness rose and settled in his throat. He gently smoothed a stray lock of her hair from her face.
She tilted her head up. “You’re really good at this fake relationship thing,” she murmured.
“It’s a gift.”
She laughed. “I think I’m doing a bit better, too. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble being believable.”
Disappointment nagged at him. For the first time in his life, he questioned his decision to avoid love. Tessa was the only woman in twelve years who even made him consider the possibility. She made him feel things no other woman ever had. She made him want to take chances.
Maybe, he was blowing his worry over Tessa’s behavior out of proportion. After all, she incited feelings he’d refused to acknowledge since Julia’s death. This could be his mind’s way of dealing with the anxiety of experiencing these emotions. He smiled grimly. Being a forensic psychologist didn’t make interpreting his own mindset any easier.