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My Last by Melanie Shawn

Cover Design by Hot Damn Designs Published by Red Hot Reads Publishing Copyright 2013 Melanie Shawn All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the original purchaser of this book. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission in writing from Melanie Shawn. Exceptions are limited to reviewers who may use brief quotations in connection with reviews. No part of this book can be transmitted, scanned, reproduced, or distributed in any written or electronic form without written permission from Melanie Shawn. This book is a work of fiction. Places, names, characters and events are either products of the authors imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Table of Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven Sneak Peek: My Only - Alex & Jamie Excerpt: Sweet Reunion Excerpt: Scandalous Other titles by Melanie Shawn About the Author

Chapter One
Rachelle Thomas watched her hand tremble as she carefully set her mascara down on the vanity table in front of her. The shaking fingers looked like they belonged to someone else. It was as if she were watching this all happen on a movie screen instead of experiencing it live and in person. She felt like she was floating outside her body. Still feeling strangely removed from herself, she noticed that tears were forming in her eyes. She tried to blink them away. But a few errant drops escaped and slipped down her cheek. She stared at Davids reflection in the round mirror. He didn't look real, either. She wondered if this were all a dream. She felt numb...paralyzed. As she looked into her fiancs eyes, she desperately tried to see within them the man she had planned on spending the rest of her life with, had planned on having children withbut she couldn't find even a trace of that man in what she saw in front of her now. This man was a stranger, she recognized nothing about him. The eyes that looked back at her in the mirror were cold and distant. So let me get this straight, Chelle began, her voice sounding hollow and strange to her ears. It didn't matter, though. She needed to say it out loud, to solidify the situation in her own mind. She hoped that, by hearing the facts spoken in her own voice, maybe she could connect the bizarre words that she was saying to reality - that it wouldnt seem so ludicrous. After taking a deep breath, she calmly repeated what David had just told her. You have been having an affair with your 18 year old secretary for the past six months, now shes pregnant, so youre going to marry her. He nodded briskly. She continued, And...just to clarify...you decided that the best time to tell me this was ten minutes before we are supposed to leave to go to my best friends wedding...in which I am the maid of honor. He stared at her, his piercing blue eyes icy and detached. Look, Im sorry if youre upset by this, but were all adults here One of us just barely made the cut, she shot back sharply. Dont be petty, David snapped. Petty is just about all I've got right now, she said angrily, to which David rolled his eyes, making her feel about two inches tall. Chelle wasnt sure what she was having more of a problem coming to terms with, the fact that, A she was finding out that the man she had devoted years of her life to was a lying, cheating pervert...or that, B - he was being such a dick about it.

I mean, sure. She had always known that David wasnt the sweet, teddy bear, cuddly type but he had never been outright mean...at least not to her. Look Chelle, theres no need to be dramatic about this. These things happen, his patronizing, condescending tone was pushing her right to the edge of losing her (admittedly tenuous) grip on her sanity and self-control. Are you being serious right now? She waited. No answer. That was not a rhetorical question, David, she said slowly and with just the slightest razor edge to her overly-serene voice, I am literally asking you if you are being serious right now. Disdain was pouring off of him as he rolled his shoulders back, Come on, now. Do we really have to draw this out with high school dramatics? Really...'draw this out...dont be petty...no need to be dramatic...these things happen...who are you right now? She shook her head in disbelief, still seated at her vanity, her back to David, looking at him through the mirror she sat in front of. Chelle didnt trust herself to turn around and face him. She might do something she would regret. Plus, she admitted to herself reluctantly, she couldnt really feel her legs right now...so she wasnt even sure if standing and facing him was an option. The alarm on her phone beeped, alerting her that it was time to head over to the church. Okay, so she wasnt going to be able to deal with this now. Just as well. The wedding would give her a good excuse to shove this down, put it inside a mental box, not let it take her over. Straightening her shoulders she realized, that might be easier said than done. But, it didnt matter. She needed to pull it together. She was not going to let David's little bombshell take away from her best friend Katies big day! Bracing her hands on the edge of the solid wood of the vanity, she used every last ounce of strength she had in her arms to push off and help balance herself. She carefully stood. Her legs felt shaky beneath her but they didnt give out causing her to fall flat on her rear. Thank God for small blessings. She made a point to modulate her tone so that her voice came out sounding as neutral as possible, I have to go David, I want you gone when I get home. David snorted. Im still going to the wedding. Ive known Jason since we were kids. He then continued, his tone indicating that he was stating the obvious, And my names on the lease, too, if you recall. Im not moving out.

He huffed indignantly, sounding more like a rebellious teenager than an almost thirty year old man. Hey, maybe he and secretary girl had more in common than Chelle had originally thought. Finally, she turned to look at him. It was surreal, almost as if she were having an out of body experience. She stared at him and saw him, really saw him, for maybe the first time in her life. She had known David since middle school, and she had dated him off and on since they were in high school. They had gotten serious a few years ago, and had been engaged for about a year. Before this moment, she would have said that - without a shadow of a doubt - she knew him, really knew him, through and through. But now, as she stood staring at him with his arms crossed in a combative stance, she couldnt believe how different he looked to her. Everything went eerily quiet for a moment. The only sound she heard was a loud buzzing in her ears. Her world was narrowing in around her, as if a camera lens were zooming in to take a close up. She felt as if she were not really experiencing any of this, but rather that she was outside looking in. She had the oddest sensation that she was merely a viewer of her own life, watching the drama unfold like she would on an episode of CSI. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she burst out laughing. She had no idea why. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew this must seem like the behavior of a crazy person...hell, this must be the behavior of a crazy person! Hmm, she considered, yep, maybe that was it. Maybe she was crazy. Perhaps this burst of hysteria meant that she was smack-dab in the middle of a full blown, certifiable, nervous breakdown. That had to be it. Instead of having a logical, sane reaction to his rather disturbing news (which she assumed would be to feel sad...angry maybe) she just couldn't stop laughing. She noticed that David was looking at her with disgust and pity, shaking his head like he felt sorry for her. "Chelle, you really need to pull it together. I know you're going to miss me but..." She began to laugh even harder at his ridiculous self-important statement. She was laughing so hard she was crying. She couldn't stop. Now she began to feel afraid afraid that if some outside force didn't stop the laughter soon, she would never be able to make it stop on her own. Oh dear God! Her phone rang, then, answering her prayer. It pulled her out of her hyena-like laughing fit and anchored her to earth. She looked down at her smart phone and Katies face appeared on the screen. She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, wiped her eyes, and cleared her throat before answering the call.

She gave her head one final shake to try and snap out of her unexpected outburst before she spoke. She didnt want to alarm Katie by sounding koo-koo katchoo on the phone, after all. Finally, she pressed the answer icon. Hey Katie, she said, and (Happy Dance!) her voice sounded fairly normal in her ears. Well, she thought, so far so good. She sounded like a completely sane person. Where are you? Katie, however, might be just a little panicked, Chelle immediately realized. Im headed out right now. Oh thank God! Katie said, relief filling her voice, Mom had a last minute errand to run, Sophies running late, and...well, I love Aunt Wendy and I know she means well, but, she is driving me a little nuts. I need you! Dont worry, Ill be there in a few minutes, with renewed determination to keep it all together and be strong for Katie, Chelle hung up the phone. This was Katies day! Nothing would stop her from being there for her best friend her diamond friend not even David's shocking announcement. She was not about to let anything take away from Katie's day. Chelle grabbed her bag, and headed towards the front door. She could hear Davids voice, and on some vague background level knew he was animatedly speaking to her. But, to her ears, his voice sounded like he was underwater, or speaking to her from the end of a long tunnel. No, I know! He sounds like the adults sound in the Charlie Brown cartoon, Chelle thought to herself. He's talking but all I hear is, Waah wa waaa wah wa. She snapped a lid on that line of thought before it could send her off on another round of hysterical and uncontrollable laughter. Deciding to completely ignore whatever he was saying (as a tactical maneuver, even though she would have done it just on principal alone!) she brushed passed him to get to the front door. He reached out as she passed him, grabbing her arm roughly. Immediately stopping in her tracks and without even sparing him a glance she spoke with an authoritative tone one that quite honestly, until this very moment, she had no idea she possessed and stated firmly, Dont. Touch. Me. He must have sensed that she meant business and not been ready to deal with the new steel in her manner, because David released his hold on her arm immediately, and just as quickly, she was out the door. --- ~ ---

Rushing out to her car, Chelle drove to Harpers Crossing Community Church on auto-pilot or, at least that's what she assumed she must have done, because she certainly wasn't consciously aware of the trip! She had so many thoughts running through her head, she couldnt make sense of any of them. There were so many conflicting emotions competing for her attention that it seemed like they must be canceling each other out. She felt hurt, anger, confusion, and sadness. They were all playing a cruel game of bumper cars in her belly, but because of their intensity, all she could feel were the crashes when they collided. Getting out of her car in the parking lot of the church, Chelle was immediately accosted by Aunt Wendy, Katies well-meaning and slightly eccentric aunt - who also happened to be the wedding planner. Great, youre already dressed, lets get you into the bridal suite. Katie wanted you back there as soon as you arrived, Aunt Wendy said as she bustled Chelle quickly off towards the church, barely giving her enough time to lock her car. Aunt Wendy pressed a button on her headset and, in a serious voice, alerted the person on the other end that she was, En route with MOH. Even in Chelles anxiety riddled, confused state of mind she was able to clearly decipher one thought - Aunt Wendys announcement to whoever might be on the receiving end of her earpiece seemed slightly like overkill. This was a small and intimate wedding party. It only consisted of Chelle, who was the maid of honor and Sophie, who was the matron of honor. Although Sophie was not blood-related, she had always been like Katies little sister. And since Sophie had just married Bobby Sloan (little brother of Katies soon-to-be husband Jason Sloan), she was now going to be Katie's actual sister-in-law. On the guys' side there were two of Jason's four brothers standing up for him, Alex and (Sophie's husband) Bobby. That was it. The whole shebang. Plus, this was a very small town. Everyone knew everyone. She didnt think whoever was on the other end of that radio headset would have been confused if Aunt Wendy had simply said, Chelles here. Chelle giggled and lifted her wrist to her mouth, as if she had a microphone there, secretservice style. In a voice several octaves below her own, she intoned, Base, the Eagle has landed, and her giggles transformed to out-and-out laughter. The sideways glance she got from Wendy told her that she might still be slightly hysterical, not quite in touch with reality, and she made a concerted effort to rein herself in as they headed back toward the church at a brisk clip.

As soon as they opened the large wooden front door to the church, which at capacity seated about one hundred and fifty people, she noticed that it looked to be filling up to the brim. She took a deep breath. Looked like she'd be giving the performance of her life today, and to a sold out crowd, no less! Aunt Wendy pushed her way through the small crowd of people waiting to sign the guestbook. She acted as though she were Chelles body guard, pulling her along, not letting anyone speak to her. Which, considering what Chelle was going through, she had to admit she was grateful for. Chelle wasn't exactly in the mood for pleasant conversation. As they reached the side door to the bridal suite, Aunt Wendy flung the door open and bodily shoved Chelle inside while simultaneously pressing the side of her headset, this time announcing, Delivered MOH, en route to ushers. Chelle shook her head, smiling. Aunt Wendy had clearly found her calling. See what I mean?! Katie asked, a touch of panic at the edge of her voice. She was clearly not as amused as Chelle was. Chelle turned to see her best friend sitting in the oversized chair in the corner of the room, leaning over and threading the delicate slip of leather at the top of her beautiful shoe around her ankle and through the diamond encrusted buckle it was meant to fit into. Katie stood and smoothed down her simple, strapless, white satin gown. Her long, silken blonde hair cascaded in curls around her face and fell all the way down to her waist. Her make-up was understated and flawless. She looked ethereal. Katie spun around once. Well, how do I look? Chelle smiled, and this time she knew that the smile reached her eyes. Happiness for her BFF welled up inside of her. Well, Katie was more than her BFF, actually. She was her DFF (Diamond Friend Forever) that is what they had considered each other since they were in elementary school and Aunt Wendy had told them that best friends were common but diamond friends were rare. Like an angel, she answered. Katie scrunched her nose, Thats weird. Thats what Jas told me he thought the first time he saw me in Kindergarten. Im no angel, I dont get it, she shrugged. You look so beautiful. Im so happy for you guys! Chelle could feel tears beginning to form again, but this time they were tears of joy. Well...mostly joy. There may have been some leftover emotions that had decided they wanted to rear their ugly little heads, not appreciating being shoved down and ignored. But MOSTLY it was joy! Katies eyes met Chelles and a flash of concern crossed her face, Are you okay? Dang it, Katie had always been perceptive and once her spidey senses detected something,

she would not drop it until she was satisfied with the answer she got. If Chelle was going to pull this off, she was going to have to give it everything she had! Attempting to call on her inner Meryl Streep, she tried to mask any emotion that would raise suspicion. Im great! She announced, perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. OKAY...so, Meryl Streep she was not. But she was giving it the old college try! Katie cocked her head to the side and gave her a look that made it clear that she was not buying what Chelle was trying to sell, Chelle, seriously...whats wrong? Her mind quickly scrambled for a way out, a plan B explanation that would provide a simple and believable cause for her welling emotion. Oh snap, thats it! Simple explanation! Im just so happy to be here with you, you know...on your wedding day. I cant believe youre getting married. And Ive missed you so much! The best lies, Chelle had read somewhere, were ones that were rooted in the truth and what Chelle had just said certainly was the truth...if not the whole truth. But Chelle realized that the key to redirecting Katies attention would be to stick to the (palatable part) of the truth since Katie could sniff out a lie like a bloodhound. Katie smiled and came over to give Chelle a hug. YES! Plan B was a success. Ive missed you too! God, its so weird. I mean, a month ago I was living in California. I hadnt even seen you or Jas in over ten years. Now, I cant imagine my life without him, or you, Katie was shaking her head, but smiling from ear to ear, I seriously cant believe its only been a month. Katie had come back to Harpers Crossing a month earlier for Sophie's, wedding. Katie had dated Nick, her next door neighbor and also Sophie's big brother, since they were in middle school. Nick had died tragically in an automobile accident the summer after their senior year, and Katie left town the night after his funeral. She hadnt been home in a decade. Sophie, who had always considered Katie her big sister, had asked Katie to be the maid of honor in her wedding. Katie, despite her reservations about returning to the place that had spawned such complicated feelings for her feelings she had been running from for a decade had returned out of pure love for Sophie. Over the course of that wedding weekend, which turned out to be the most fateful weekend of her life, she had reunited with Jason, who had been the best man in the wedding. Jason had been in love with Katie since the first day they had met in Kindergarten, but he had never told her of his feelings until the weekend of the wedding, and - after spending a roller coaster few days together - he had asked her to marry him. Katie had said yes, and Jason hadnt wanted to waste any time getting her down the aisle. His

feeling was that they had already wasted over 20 years not being together, and he didnt want to live even one more day than he absolutely had to without her as his wife. Katie, who was the sweetest person alive, hadnt wanted to overshadow Bobby and Sophies recent nuptials and had insisted that they wait at least a month. In that time, she had headed back to San Francisco, with Jason by her side, and tied up some lose ends with cases that she had in progress, facilitating their transfer to other attorneys on staff at her firm. She had thought that she might be sad to leave her fast-paced life as an up and coming lawyer, but had ultimately decided that 80-plus hour work weeks and near-constant pressure to perform were not the life she wanted. She wanted to move home to Harper's Crossing, and - most importantly - she wanted Jason. Chelle could honestly say she had never seen her diamond friend happier. And just think, in a couple of months...this will be you in the white dress, getting ready to walk down the aisle! Katie exclaimed. Yep! Chelle agreed and smiled widely...again, probably just a touch too brightly. Chelle Katies concerned voice and narrow-eyed suspicion were interrupted as the door burst open and one extremely frazzled matron of honor rushed in. Oh my gosh, I am sooo sorry Im late, Katie! I was doing sooo good. I was on track. On time. Just finishing getting ready when Bobby came in and then she started to blush, well, he sidetracked me and before I knew it I was off schedule. But Im here now. What do you need? Katie laughed, Ahhhhh the 'newlywed' excuse. I guess Ill be able to use that one after today, her eyes danced with delight as she hugged Sophie. Im good, Sophiebell. Honestly, more than anything, I just want to get this show on the road! Sophie looked up at the round clock hanging on the far wall of the small room, Well, we should be getting started in about twenty minutes! She enthused as she clapped her hands together joyfully. The door swung open once again and Aunt Wendy appeared in the doorway, all business, announcing her arrival in no-nonsense tones through her headset. Sophie turned and mouthed to Chelle, Who is she talking to? Chelle shrugged and shook her head, eyes wide, to indicate her lack of knowledge. She didnt know who was on the other end of that headset, but she did know that she was happy about the arrival of more people in the small bridal room! More people meant more hustle and bustle, which meant fewer opportunities for the attention to be focused on her. And that meant less of a chance for Katie to figure out something was wrong with her! Aunt Wendy looked all three of the girls up and down, like some kind of impromptu bridal inspection, although her facial expression read much more 'drill sergeant' than 'kindly wedding coordinator.' Still, they must have all passed the test, because her expression of scrutiny melted into

one of bliss, and she sighed happily, Well, don't you girls just look as pretty as pictures! Chelle glanced over at Sophie who was in the same red halter-top, tea-length dress that Chelle wore. Sophie looked amazing. The contrast of the deep red color with her honey blonde hair was beautiful, bringing out the deeper and more complex tones in both the dress and Sophie's hair. It was like the sum of the parts created something even greater than what the two components had started out to be on their own. And Chelle had to admit, although red was not normally a color she liked to incorporate in her own wardrobe, Katie had chosen a very pretty and striking rich shade of red for the wedding. Amber, who owned Bella, a small boutique clothing shop in town, had designed the one-of-akind bridesmaid dresses. As soon as Chelle had slipped the dress on, she had immediately fallen in love with it - and not just the fit, but also the unique shade of red, which offset perfectly her olivetoned skin and chestnut brown hair. Then, when Sophie had come out of the dressing room and Chelle saw how good the dress fit her and how the red also complimented Sophies fair skin and golden blonde hair, she knew Katie had been her 'usual Katie self' and chosen perfectly. The next half-hour flew by and, before Chelle knew it, she was walking down the center aisle of the church toward the altar. She concentrated hard on not looking at anyone in the pews, as she didnt want to see the wrong person (David!). With her head held high, she simply looked straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other. Hey, she thought, that's not a bad metaphor for my life now just look straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other...oh, and, of course, try not to collapse in a heap. That was also an important step. Jason smiled at her as she came closer, his warm brown eyes filled with excitement as he waited for Katie to walk down the aisle and become his wife. The look in his eyes caused the floodgates to open and Chelle once again was filled with emotions. Mostly happiness, as she had always thought that Jason and Katie belonged together, even (if she was being honest) when Katie had been with Nick. Jason was such a great guy. She knew he would always take care of Katie and treat her right. But happiness was not the only thing she was feeling. Those other emotions she was trying her best to smash down and suppress kept trying to pop their heads up and ambush her. Nope, not today, she told herself grimly. They are just going to have to wait. She once again stomped them firmly down into submission. Chelle got to her place, just to the left of the first step, and turned to watch Sophie coming towards them. Sophie was staring straight at her new husband Bobby, who was standing beside

Jason. Chelle noticed Bobby wink at his new bride, and when she looked back at Sophie, she noticed a blush creeping up her cheeks. Those two are so cute, Chelle thought to herself. Other people make love look so happy, so easy...what's their secret? Sophie stepped up beside Chelle and everyone stood when the organist started playing The Bridal March. As the familiar strains of that well-known anthem rang out, Chelle couldn't help but hear the lyrics echoing in her mind, Here comes the bride, all dressed in white... and wondering if those words would ever be true for her. NO, Chelle! Lock it down, she admonished herself. There was a chorus of OOOH and AWWW as Katie slowly made her way to the front of the church, strictly adhering to the formal processional march, on the arm of Sophie's grandfather, Grandpa J. Katie had asked Grandpa J, aka The Colonel, to give her away since Katies father Craig had been MIA for most of her life and, as she had found out later, had actually created an entirely new family in his absence! Katie had just recently found out that she had four siblings - three half-brothers and one halfsister. Her brothers CJ, Caden and Corey were all in attendance today. Katie had briefly met her sister Carrie when she was out in California tying up loose ends, but Carrie was a student at UCLA and couldnt make it out to Illinois for the wedding. Grandpa J was technically Sophie and Nicks grandfather, but he had unofficially adopted Katie as his own, and he loved her just as much as his real grandkids. They had become very close over the time that Katie had lived next door to and dated Nick, back in high school. Also, when Katie had returned to Harpers Crossing last month for Sophie and Bobbys wedding, Grandpa J had been the one to take the most drastic action in playing matchmaker he had let the air out of the tires in Katies car so she would be forced to drive with Jason up to Whisper Lake, where the nuptials were being held. He had since said that, even during the years that Katie was dating Nick, he had always suspected that Jason was the right one for his Katie girl. Chelle saw that Grandpa J had tears in his eyes when he leaned down to kiss Katie on the cheek. When the pastor asked, Who gives this woman to marry this man? Grandpa J cleared his throat and smiled proudly as he said, Well now, young man, I guess that would me. Then, when he passed Katies hand to Jasons, he held his gaze and told him, You take care of our girl, now, son. Jason beamed, I will, Colonel. As Grandpa J made his way to his seat, Pam, Katies mom, surprised everyone. Seemingly overcome with love, she quickly stood, hugging both Katie and Jason before taking her seat next to

her sister, Aunt Wendy. Chelle could see pleased smiles all around the congregation at this show of emotion by Katie's mother. The whole time Katie had been growing up, although Pam had always been a very good Mom and there was no question in anyone's mind about how much she loved Katie and how much she would sacrifice for her, Pam had never been very physically demonstrative or affectionate about that love. Well, I guess weddings do tend to bring out the mushy side of people, Chelle thought as she turned to face the pastor. The ceremony began and Chelle did her level best to focus on the pastor and what he was saying, but if she was honest with herself, it was the conversation with David that kept running through her mind as she tried to enjoy the beautiful ceremony. Her brain kept torturing her with the list of things that she should have said, the many questions that she should have asked. She had just been so blindsided by what David had revealed, that it was like her brain had been short-circuited. Katie and Jason stepped up to the alter and the pastor announced that they were going to exchange vows that they had written themselves. Chelle prepared herself for the onslaught of emotion she was sure to have when they spoke. Of all the times during the day today that she needed to guard against having a breakdown, surely this during the freaking VOWS, for crying out loud! - was the most important. And yet, because of the inherent emotion that the moment was going to bring, it could also prove to be the hardest. She steeled herself. Jason brushed a soft curl back from Katie's face and she smiled up at him beaming with love. He took a deep breath and said, Katie. My angel. I think that from the first moment I laid eyes on you, when we were putting our backpacks in our cubbies on the first day of Kindergarten, I knew that this day was in the cards for us. That it was coming, as surely as a sunrise after a dark night, no matter how far away that light might seem at some points, when you're sitting in the darkness. I never lost faith in you...in us. I know we took a winding road to get here, but this is where we belong. With each other. In each other's arms, and in each other's hearts. My beautiful girl, now that I have you, trust me on one thing I will never let you go. You are my angel, the light of my life, forever. Chelle felt tears falling from her eyes, but that was fine. There was nothing suspicious about that, there wasn't a dry eye in the place. Still, she certainly wasn't out of the woods yet. She still had to get through her DFF's speech without falling apart! Katie took a deep, shaking breath and beamed up at Jason. Jason, she began tremulously, and then squared her shoulders, a determined look coming into her eye. She began again, her voice stronger and more confident, Jason, you are the strength that I never knew that I had. You call me your angel, but the truth is you are my guardian angel, and you always have been. Whether I knew that you were doing it or not...whether I even knew that I needed it

or not...you were always looking out for me. Love isn't expressed through the things that we do which we expect credit for, or some elaborate show of gratitude in return. Many of the sacrifices you have made for me, I never knew about until fifteen years after the fact. I'm sure there are many more that I still don't know about. The love that you have shown me, and continue to show me, regardless of if I deserve it or even know about it, is the purest love I have ever known. There are so many things I adore about you, my Jason. But I think that the biggest among them is how you show me, every single day, what it means to be selfless. I love you. Good Lord! Leave it to Katie, Chelle thought, to come up with a tear-jerking speech just when I'm trying to keep all emotions in check! Katie and Jason kissed, and soon Chelle was relieved to see that they were making their way down the aisle. YES! Her time on stage, so to speak, was nearly over. Of course, there was still the whole reception to get through...but at least she wouldn't be standing on a platform in front of all the guests for the entire reception! Sophie and Bobby followed Katie and Jason, and then Chelle stepped to the center of the aisle and took the arm of Alex Sloan, another of the five Sloan brothers. As he escorted her down the aisle he turned to her and said with a wink, Damn Chelle, you look good, Davids a lucky man. Those four innocent words, meant to be a compliment - Davids a lucky man - were the straw that broke the camel's back. They hit her right in the solar plexus and were just about more than she could handle. She thought she might throw up or pass out, she wasnt sure which but neither option was all that appealing at the moment! Alex must have noticed that something was wrong, because once they exited the sanctuary he guided her to a secluded hall that branched off of the foyer, leading to the side of the church. After checking up and down the hall to make sure they were alone, he said, concern in his voice, You dont look so good. Are you okay? Chelle nodded and tried to smile, although even to her own mind, it seemed like a weak attempt. She realized that her attempts must have actually been every bit as outwardly unconvincing as she suspected that they were when Alex immediately turned to leave, saying in a somewhat urgent tone, Let me go get David. NO! Chelle hadnt meant to raise her voice or to bark out the command so harshly. Alex froze, then slowly turned back on his heels, looking at her like she had grown another head. He raised his hands in mock surrender, saying, Okay, sorry. I wont go get David. Chelle slumped against the wall, defeated and still fighting the last vestiges of hysteria. Davids been cheating on me with his eighteen year old secretary Kayla. Shes pregnant and hes marrying her. The words tumbled out of her faster than water racing down a wild river. They rushed

from her mouth and she didn't even realize it was happening until she heard her own voice saying them. She flung her hand over her mouth to try and stop it. Alexs emerald green eyes became as big as saucers. Holy shit! Chelle removed her hand from her mouth, realizing the damage had been done. She had already spilled the beans. Time for damage control. Please dont say anything, Alex. I dont want Katie to worry. You know how she is. Alex nodded his head in agreement, I cant believe youve been able to keep it a secret from her, shes like Sherlock Holmes. Well, I just found out. He told me about ten minutes before I left to come here. Alex shook his head. What an asshole. Yep. My thoughts exactly. She took a deep breath. Her body felt heavy, as if her limbs were encased in concrete. She thought she must be weighed down by the stark reality of the situation, which had just become shockingly more real, now that she had told someone else. Now there was a witness. Damn. I dont know what to say, Chelle. Alex genuinely looked pained for her. Dont worry about it, Im fine. She smiled as brightly as she could manage, not wanting him to feel sorry for her. If there was anything she hated, it was being the object of pity. Just please do me a favor and dont say anything to anyone, okay? Not waiting for an answer, she stepped out of the hall and back towards the crowd of people. She instantly began to feel a little lighter. People, thats what she needed. Crowds of people. No more of this one-on-one conversation nonsense. That was too heavy. It was (obviously!) far too easy to say things that would be more prudent to keep to herself. She just needed to keep herself surrounded by the masses. That should be easy enough to do at the reception, she figured those things were filled with people, and most of them would probably want to chat with her and Sophie, since they were the only two bridesmaids. They were like stars for a day. She felt Alex beside her as she walked out to the limo that was waiting to take them to the restaurant where the reception was going to be held. He gently squeezed her hand as they all piled into the vehicle, and when she looked up at him, he gave her a half-smile and a little wink. He leaned close to her and whispered. Screw him. He was never good enough for you anyway.

Chapter Two
The reception passed by in a blur of activity, which Chelle was grateful for. She felt her energy, which was so necessary for keeping up the bright facade, flagging a few times but Alex was never far from her side when that happened, for which she was grateful. He gracefully interrupted conversations as they started to stray down an uncomfortable path, and he kept her occupied tearing up the dance floor. She had forgotten how much fun it was to just dance. Chelle didn't know if he was filling the role of guard dog as a personal favor to her or if he saw the act of preventing her from having a breakdown at Katie and Jason's wedding reception to be part of his duties as co-Best Man...but either way, she was grateful for the assist. It was so much easier to keep the train of her sanity on the tracks when she didn't have to worry about directing the course that would keep it from derailing! Everything was going great, Chelle had to admit, until she excused herself from Alex's protective presence to use the restroom. That's when the whole carefully-constructed plan to keep her on an even keel came right off the rails. David was waiting for her when she stepped out. We need to talk, Chelle, David demanded standing with his arms crossed in a defensive stance. No, we dont. Not here. She tried to step around him, but he swiftly moved to block her escape route. Chelle, we need to get some things worked out, logistically. Kayla wants to move in and we need to know when you'll be out. Chelles head began spinning. Kayla wanted to move in. Move into her condo. She needed to get away. She couldnt breathe. She needed air. We think five days is more than generous. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but we expect you to be out by then. Kayla wants to have the locks changed. NO...AIR...CAN'T...BREATHE... She felt an arm wrap around her waist and heard Alexs voice, Come on Chellie Bellie. They need us out there. They're gonna cut the cake. Alex stared directly into Davids eyes, and Chelle sensed that something primal was passing between them. A pissing contest of sorts. After several moments David stepped to the side, allowing her and Alex to pass. Hmm, she thought, guess Alex won that round...

As she walked past David she heard him say something under his breath but she couldnt make it out. From the look on his face she was pretty sure she wouldn't have liked what he said, so she ignored it. Thank you, she said to Alex. She wasnt sure how she would have made it through the day without him. She turned to give him a grateful hug and heard someone clear their throat meaningfully. She looked up and saw her big brother, Eddie, who worked with Jason and Bobby at Sloan Construction. He had also been best friends with the Sloans' older brother Riley when they were growing up. Chelle had been trying to avoid Eddie at the reception because Eddie was irrationally overprotective of her, and she certainly didnt want him to cause a scene with David if he found out what had been going on. Of course, it's not like she would be planning to tell him about it...but as her little breakdown with Alex in the hall had proved, sometimes things just pop out. Chelle had been with David off and on since their freshman year in high school, and it had taken Eddie a good two years to warm up to him. Well...he had never really warmed up to him, per se...he tolerated David for Chelles sake, but he never really liked him. Needless to say, he had not been overjoyed when she and David had reconnected and then gotten engaged. He had always maintained that David was a douchebag damn it all to hell, why hadnt she listened to him? She knew that if Eddie caught wind of Davids transgressions, the resultant scene would not be pretty. Eddie, God love him, had a tendency to punch first and ask questions later...and as satisfying as it might feel to see David take one in the face right about now, she did not want him to make a scene at Katies wedding reception! Eddie was fairly notorious around Harper's Crossing because had gotten into his fair share of brawls in high school, and had even had several run-ins with the law during his teen years. He and Riley both were known for their quick tempers and wild ways. They were labeled the bad boys of Harpers Crossing. Eddie had straightened up after he turned eighteen and realized that if he didn't grow up, and fast, he would be throwing the rest of his life away on stupid adolescent antics. Riley, apparently having a similar epiphany, had joined the Marines around the same time. He had left for basic training right after their senior year, and - other than a couple of short weekend trips home to visit his family he hadnt been back to Harpers Crossing since. But Riley and Eddie had kept in touch over the years. In fact, Eddie had stepped in for Riley as a groomsman the month before, at Bobby and Sophies wedding, when Riley had found out at the last minute that his deployment was being extended.

Whats going on with you two? Eddie asked now, staring at Alex. Alex put his hands up in mock surrender, Nothing man, were just in the wedding party together. She knew Alex wasnt really scared of her brother, he was just trying to diffuse the tension. Alex was an ex-Navy Seal, and - although her brother stood at an impressive six-two - Alex was only a hair shorter than him, at six one. Both men were extremely fit and could definitely hold their own. Chelle suddenly felt little arms wrap around her legs and she looked down to see her beautiful six-year-old niece Emily hugging her tightly. She bent down and wrapped her arms around her, Hello, my pretty princess. Are you having fun? Emily looked up adoringly and smiled a toothless grin. She had lost her two front teeth the month earlier, Yes, I told Daddy that I want a wedding just like this when I grow up. Eddie groaned as he scooped his daughter up into his arms, And I told her she has a lot of time to plan it since shes not even allowed to date until shes thirty. Chelle smiled. Her brother was such an amazing Dad. His ex-wife, Lacey, had decided when Emily was about three months old that she wasnt cut out to be a wife or a Mom, leaving him divorced and a single Dad. He never complained, never acted like it was any kind of a burden, but Chelle knew it must be hard on him. Emily giggled as she turned and hugged Eddies neck, exclaiming happily, Dance with me, Daddy! Eddies eyes softened for a moment before turning to Alex and hardening again. Im watching you, he said in his most protective, dont-mess-with-my-baby-sister tone. Chelle knew that Alex had a reputation as a ladies' man. That reputation was probably why her brother looked concerned. But Alex had been a perfect gentleman, and had been her saving grace today, and she wasn't about to let her brother make it into something it wasnt. Eddie, Alex has been great today. I needed a friend and he was there for me. Thats all. Dont act like he did something wrong. Slipping her arm in Alexs she started towards the cake table, We need to go, they're cutting the cake. She heard her brothers voice behind her, Friend, huh? Yeah, right. Whatever, she thought, exasperated. Think what you want, Ill deal with it later. Eddie had no idea that Alex was definitely not the Sloan brother he would need to worry about, if he were going to start worrying about any of them. Oh, sure, she had always liked Alex well enough...had thought he was attractive, funny and easy to get along with. But he wasnt Riley! She sighed inwardly. Oh

LORD, she had always had it bad for Riley Sloan. Of course, most of the time they were growing up, Riley had ignored her or treated her like an annoying little sister. BUT...there were a few nights...a few amazing nights...that he had stayed up late and talked to her, when her parents had been out and Eddie was passed out drunk or busy entertaining the flavor of the week. Those nights had probably been the best of her entire life. Riley had opened up to her about his childhood. He had talked about his Moms battle with depression, which ultimately resulted in her losing her life. His mother, Cheryl, had been out of the picture for several years before tragically overdosing on sleeping pills. He had talked about wanting to leave Harpers Crossing, to get away from the small town where everyone had an opinion about his life, his brothers lives, and his mom's life...and death. He had also asked her about her plans for the future. He had listened as she told him about how she wanted to go into nursing. No one had ever asked her what she wanted to do with her life...well, except Katie. She hadnt been ignored by her family, exactly. Just maybe not seen. But on those nights, it had felt as if Riley saw her, really saw who she was. To this day, she had never felt a connection with anyone like she had experienced with him. She would still catch herself replaying those nights over and over again in her head. She had even dreamed about them sometimes. She sometimes thought that if Heaven were really going to be better than anything she had experienced here on earth, it would have to go a pretty good distance to outpace those nights she had spent sitting up and talking with Riley Sloan. His sandy blonde hair and gorgeous hazel eyes had been the stuff of her teenage fantasies...hell, who was she kidding? Her adult fantasies, too, for that matter. Every man she ever met, when she unconsciously measured their attractiveness, Riley Sloan was the yardstick she measured them against. She had yet to meet someone that measured up to the standard, let alone exceeded it. Riley had never known how she felt about him. No one did, not even Katie. But suffice it to say, Eddie definitely didnt need to worry about Alex Sloan swooping in and stealing her heart. Nope. Alex never made her heart race, let alone stop cold. Not the way Riley did. It did make her start to wonder, though...where was David in that mix? Here she was, ruminating about men that got her heart racing to various degrees...and David didn't even come to mind? Hmmmm.... She shook her head. Right now, none of that mattered. She just needed to make it through the cake cutting, incident-free. She needed to plaster on a smile and get through the rest of the reception with NO DRAMA. Then, lastly, she would get Katie into the limo that was taking her and Jason to OHare, where they were catching a plane to Bermuda for their well-deserved honeymoon.

THEN, and only then, would she allow herself to fall apart. The cake cutting went off without a hitch. Jason and Katie kept it classy and didnt shove the confection in each others faces, smearing it everywhere - which Chelle appreciated. She had never understood why couples did that. She had always thought that it was disrespectful, and more than a little tacky. Not long after the cake cutting, Aunt Wendy ran up to Chelle, headset firmly in place, and said, The Limo's here, doll. Can you go find Katie? Chelle nodded and turned to go do exactly that. As she was walking away, she heard Wendy say into the headset, MOH retrieving bride... and Chelle smiled. Probably the first genuine, nonhysterical, smile that had graced her lips the entire day. It was partly because she was amused by Wendy's super-serious-secret-squirrel-wedding-planner routine...but it was also due to her realization that Woohoo! - she was almost in the clear. Once Chelle had bundled Katie into that limo and she was on her way to the airport, Chelle could take a moment to breathe and start to figure this whole debacle out. She moved forward with a fresh sense of determination, heading toward the last place she had seen Katie. She didnt quite make it that far, however. As she was passing the wide doors that led out to the (closed and off limits) patio, she felt her arm being grabbed and, before she knew it, she was being dragged bodily through the doors and onto the patio. She was alarmed until she turned and saw that her attacker was Katie. Holy catfish! Chelle exclaimed, What are you doing out here on the dusty patio? Do you have any idea what your aunt or whoever she's talking to on the other end of that headset will do to me if I deliver you into the limo with a filthy hem? Ignoring this tirade, Katie asked solemnly, Is it true? Chelle, ever the optimist, was still holding out hope that Katie hadnt heard her news and was inquiring about some other gossip-worthy scandal. Is what true? Chelle asked conspiratorially. Katies eyes widened, she shook her head. Is it true that David cheated on you and got some skank pregnant? Oh, that, Chelle said nonchalantly, yeah, thats true. Downplay, that was her only move at this point in the game! Katies voice got squeaky and high, not a good sign. Why didnt you tell me? Its not that big of a deal. I just didnt want you worried about it. Now, come on, we gotta get you to the limo! She tried to gloss over the whole thing and pull Katie back inside. Katie maneuvered herself until she was standing in front of the door. Um, hello, it IS a big

deal! And of course Im gonna worry about it, are you kidding me? There was a loud knock on the door and the girls looked up to see Aunt Wendy tapping on her watch indicating that it was time for Katie to go. She didn't look happy. You see? Chelle said, Seriously Katie, go. Im fine. Really. Katie shook her head and waved off her Aunt, indicating she wasnt leaving yet. When she turned back to Chelle, she wore an earnest expression, and she said, What are you going to do, Chelle? Chelle wanted to laugh. Katie asked what are you going to do? as if she assumed that Chelle had formulated some sort of a plan. Honestly, Chelle thought Katie was giving her more credit than she deserved. Chelle felt the hysteria bubbling back up, Umm...get a hotel, I guess? Katie looked taken aback, Get a hotel? You mean while he clears his stuff out? Chelle shook her head, Oh, no. He has no intention of leaving. He's given me five days to get out. The skank's gonna change my locks. Katie's eyebrows raised and her voice became deadly calm as she said, Yeah, that's not gonna happen. It's forty different kinds of illegal, and I'm going to make sure he's aware of that fact. Chelle shook her head, Katie, it's your honeymoon. You should just be having fun. Believe me, she replied grimly, The conversation that he and I are going to have will be a LOT of fun. For one of us. Quick hint it's not going to be him. Chelle shook her head, Oh, Katie. I'm just sorry this whole thing happened on your wedding day. Katie wrapped her up in a warm embrace, Seriously, don't give that a second thought. Besides, it's not like you chose the timing. But, honestly, sweetie...what's the plan? I can't just fly off to paradise not knowing what you're gonna do! Im not sure, but Ill be fine. Really, Chelle did her best to sound convincing, How did you find out anyway? Katies arms flew up as she animatedly explained, Well! Jason and Eddie both cornered Alex because they thought he was trying to hook up with you all day today, and they were pissed. Eddie because, well, you know how he is about his baby sis. And Jason just because he thought that it was super tactless to be trying to score with you at his wedding reception. Alex cracked under the pressure, or maybe they gave him a wedgie? I'm not totally clear on that part. At any rate, he spilled. Im not sure exactly how it came down, but the end result was that he sang like a canary. Of course, he told Jason not to tell me, but, come on, please. Jason knew I would have killed him if make that when I found out that he knew what happened and waited until we got to our honeymoon to tell me. Panic swept from the top of Chelles head to her tippy-toes. Oh, no! I have to get in there! If

Eddie sees David he might actually kill him. Katie shook her head and remained standing in front of the glass door, Don't worry, DFF. Jason and Alex have Eddie in the back room and David already left. Chelle felt her shoulders slump as she sighed in relief, Oh, good. But for the record, I think he deserves to get his ass kicked, Katie crossed her arms. Chelle shook her head, Sure, but not at your wedding reception! Katie barked out a bitter little laugh, Please! That would have been the Best. Wedding Gift. Ever! In fact, I'm actually kind of pissed that you deprived me of it. Chelle laughed regretfully, closing her eyes as she let the reality of the situation and the fact that most of the people who were important to her in the world now knew about it sink in just a little further. Katie, however, was not done discussing. When did you find out? How did you find out? Have you confronted the little home wrecking ho? Is she really only 18?! Katies voice was getting louder and more strident with each question, so Chelle decided she'd better jump in and try to bring it down a notch before a passersby decided to come over to the glass door and eavesdrop. Chelle answered the inquiries one by one, ticking them off on her fingers, I found out right before I got to the church this morning. David told me. No, I havent talked to Kayla. Yes she is 18. This marked only the second time that Chelle had actually spoken the words aloud, and it didnt feel any less surreal than the first. Katie took a deep breath, shaking her head back and forth, her face a mask of disbelief. Then, a look of determination crossed her face, indicating that her mind was made up. Chelle recognized that expression from many exchanges with Katie, starting way back in the second grade. It was a Katie Classic. Well Im not leaving you, Katie declared, There's just no way in hell that's happening. Ill see if we can get a later flight. Let me just go tell Jason, Ill be right back. Chelle caught Katies arm as she was turning to head back inside, No Katie, dont. Chelle didn't want to be the cause of Katie's plans getting derailed. That would only make her feel 50 times more miserable than she already did. But Katie was in determined mode - Chelle needed to think of something...and fast! Look, I was already planning on taking off an entire month for my wedding. Since I wont be needing to do that, I think I'll just see if I can get my shifts covered and take the time now. Maybe I'll head out of town for a while. You know...just take some time for myself and figure all this out, far away from the mass of prying eyes and gossipy talk that is Harpers Crossing. Katie still looked slightly skeptical, Okay, well. That does sound like a decent plan. After

my conversation with Douchebag David, I guarantee you won't have to worry about him touching your stuff while you're gone, or changing the locks. Where will you go? Um, Im not sure. I havent thought that far ahead, Chelle answered honestly. Katie thought for a moment before her expression filled with excitement, Well, I have the perfect solution. My lease isnt up for another two months, so my apartment is just sitting there. Its still furnished, and youve been saying you always wanted to see San Francisco. Tears started forming in Chelles eyes again, this time springing from sheer love and appreciation for her friend. Thank you, Katie. That sounds perfect. You are the best friend a girl could ever have. Diamond friends, Katie began. Forever! They finished in unison.

Chapter Three
Riley was a free man. He had just left Camp Pendleton, the San Diego Marine base where he received his discharge papers. It was a little bizarre looking down at his DD214 - the paperwork that said he was no longer the property of the U.S. Marines Corp. He was really out. Damn. It was a strange feeling. He had served his country for the last twelve years, and had served it well. But now he was free to do what he wanted. He could go where he wanted, when he wanted. There was no one to report to, no one to check in with, and no ones life was depending on him. He took a deep breath, reveling in the smell of the salty ocean air as he drove up PCH. He didnt have a care in the world. He felt lighter and happier than he had in years. Hell, maybe ever. He was ready for the next chapter in his life. Riley had invested in a bar with some guys from his division who had gotten out a couple years earlier. They had presented him with an investment opportunity that he just couldnt pass up. They were opening a bar in New Orleans and he had put up one-third of the start-up capital. Up until now, he had been a silent partner, letting the other two completely control the day to day operations and merely reaping the financial rewards. The strategy had paid off. They had made the bar, Freedom, extremely successful, and Riley had already doubled his initial investment. Landon and Dax, his business partners, had been sending him monthly reports, and Riley knew they were doing great but, he couldn't help it, he was itching to be a more hands on part of the business. He had been studying marketing online and had some great ideas he wanted to implement. He turned on the Pandora feature that came with his rental car and was in the process of searching for a station that sounded good when his phone vibrated loudly in the console beside him. He wanted so badly to ignore it. To just drive without interruption. To take this well-deserved slice of time just for himself and to shelve any intrusions. But Riley was who he was, and when duty called (literally), he couldnt bring himself to dismiss it. Checking the screen of his phone, he saw his brother Jasons number. With a wide smile, he answered, Hey Bro, if you are taking time out of your honeymoon to call me, then obviously you're not doing something right. Where are you? His brother did not sound amused. In California. Where? Riley narrowed his eyes, thinking maybe the sun, sand, and sex had drained Jason's mental

capacity. He repeated slowly, In California... Where in California, numb nuts? Okay, that was more like the Jason that Riley knew and loved. On PCH headed up to Oakland. Im going to see a buddy of mine who just had a baby, then Im flying home. Why, whats up? He heard his brother say, Hes headed that way baby, don't worry. Its all going to be okay. Whats going to be okay? Riley asked, clearly not following. He heard Jason clear his throat, Look, can you do me And me! He heard Katie chime in in the background. ...and Katie, a favor? Jason asked. Yeah, what do you need? Oh well, Riley thought, this short reprieve of no one needing anything and not having to answer to anyone seems to have ended quite abruptly. Chelle, Eddies sister, is in San Francisco, staying in Katies apartment. She hasnt answered her phone in a couple of days, and now its just going straight to her voicemail. Riley felt like his heart stopped beating in his chest, Shit! I wont be able to get there for hours! Why arent you calling the police? No, no, its not like that. We know nothing has happened to her. Katies landlord, Randall, said he saw her last night when a pizza was delivered. Then, if you know shes fine, why did you call me? Riley snapped at his brother. He didnt mean for his voice to come out sounding so harsh, but he was a bit taken aback by the out-of-control sensation he had just experienced at the thought that something may have happened to Chelle. Truth be told, he never liked any of the feelings he had ever experienced which related to Chelle. They all seemed a little out of control. He didnt appreciate them being brought to the surface, not today. Today was supposed to be carefree and happy, not intense. Look, do you remember David Price? Jason asked. Yeah, that douchebag from school, Riley stated dismissively. He had never liked David, even before he and Chelle had started dating in high school, and he had definitely not liked the little prick after that. Jason laughed a little, You always were a good judge of character. Well, David and Chelle were engaged, in fact, they were supposed to get married next month. Riley felt like someone punched him in his gut. He had seen that Chelle was engaged to David when he had checked out her Facebook profile a few months back. And even though he had tried not to, he had been checking it fairly frequently since then. He had not seen any posts that indicated that the wedding was that damn soon! Then a week ago, Jason continued, on the morning of our wedding, as a matter of fact

thank you, Douchebag David he tells her that hes been cheating on her with his secretary Kayla, who is eighteen and pregnant. Now he didnt feel like someone had punched him. Now he just wanted to punch - no scratch that - kill David. She needed to get out of town, and Katie still had the apartment, so she went to San Francisco to stay in it. Katie's been calling her every day to check on her, and she seemed to be doing okay until a few days ago. That's when she stopped picking up her phone when Katie would call, she would just text back that she was fine. Now shes not even texting back and when we call her phone, it's going straight to voicemail. Eddie was going to head out to California and bring her home, but Emily came down with the chicken pox and so he had to stay with her. Katie wants to catch the next flight out of here to go make sure shes alright, but I remembered you were gonna be in California. So, I thought if you could go and check on her, then maybe I can convince my wife to stay in paradise with me just a little longer. Riley heard Katie in the background saying that of course she wanted to stay with Jason, but she was just worried about her friend. He smiled. He had always liked Katie, and he knew his brother had been head over heels for her all his life. He was glad that things had finally worked out for them. Riley, truth be told, was still having a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that Jason and Bobby were both married. When he had left for the Marines, Jason was 16 and Bobby was 12. Now they were grown men - married men. And he had missed both of their weddings. Jasons by only a few days. He had a lot of time to make up for in this new phase, he knew. Yeah, no problem. Tell Katie not to worry, she can stay in paradise. Im only about four hours from San Francisco. Ill stop by before my flight out of Oakland tonight. Great, Ill text you the address. Thanks Riley. The phone line went dead and Riley couldnt quite put his finger on what he was feeling about this unexpected detour. He no longer felt light and carefree. He felt tense, on edge, anxious. Partly because he now did have someone he had to check in with. But mainly because he knew that he was a few hours away from seeing the only person he had ever let in, ever let see behind the curtain. He didnt know what it was about Chelle that made her so easy to talk to, so easy to open up to. What he did know was that every time they had spent any amount of time alone together he had ended up spilling his guts. Other girls in high school had tried to get close to him, unsuccessfully. And then, in his adult, life hed had a couple of fairly serious relationships. The women he had been involved with had done everything they could to break down, climb over, go around, or even walk right through the high walls

he had put up around his inner life. But none had even come close to breaching that front. None except for Rachelle Thomas, his best friend Eddies little sister. The good girl. The one girl that someone like him should stay as far away from as possible. She was sweet and funny. She was smart and had a good head on her shoulders. She always saw the good in people, no matter what others saw or said. Everyone liked her, and she liked everyone. Including him. Hell, maybe even especially him. He had seen the looks she had given him. Had always felt that she might have had a crush on him. But he knew better than to ever pursue it. He had tried to stay away from her, had intentionally treated her like Eddie did, like she was just an annoyance. But the problem was - he was always drawn to her. Chelle was one of the only people that didnt look at him with disgust, or worse yet pity, whenever the subject of his family, or more specifically his Mom, had come up. She had never acted like she was afraid of him when he would get in stupid fights, or disappointed in him when he and Eddie would get in trouble with the law. She had always talked to him like he was justRiley. Not a mischievous trouble maker. Not a dangerous bad boy. Just Riley. Thinking back now, Riley thought that maybe the reason she didnt treat him like he fit any of those stereotypes was because, around her, he didn't. He had always felt like he could be himself around her. He never felt the need to be anything he wasnt. He never felt like he had to prove, or disprove, anything to her. On top of all of that, he had always been attracted to her. He had tried not to be, and he had obviously never acted on it. But, God...she was so beautiful. Her big brown almond shaped eyes, her long silky chestnut brown hair, her gorgeous olive-toned skin, her petite figure...they were all perfection. But all of those things, even put together, didn't begin to compare to her smile. Her smile had always made his heart feel like it was going to explode. When Chelle smiled, it was the closest thing Riley ever felt to pure unadulterated love. When she smiled, everything was right in the world. He still dreamt about that smile. He hadnt seen her since the day he left for basic training, but he had seen some pictures that Eddie had tagged her in on Facebook, and, well...damn. From what he could tell, she had only gotten better with age. She was still thin, but had curves in all the right places. Just thinking of her curves now, Riley's jeans were getting a little snug. Man, he really had to shut that kind of thinking down. Riley shouldnt be letting his mind wander when it came to Chelle, that would only get him in trouble. He would be seeing her in just a few hours, and who knew what state she would be in? He just needed to make sure she was good, see if she needed anything, and be on his way. Hell, she might not even be happy to see him. With everything she had just gone through, she

probably just wanted some time alone. If anyone could understand that it was him. He just needed to get visual and verbal confirmation of her well-being, report back to Jason, and get out of there as quickly as possible. --- ~ --Riley made good time getting to San Francisco, partly due to the fact that he hadnt hit much traffic. Also, he had cut over to Highway 5 instead of taking the scenic route so that he could cut about an hour off of the trip. Now, as he drove across the Bay Bridge, it barely even registered how amazing the city looked at sunset. All he could think about was that, in a few minutes, he would be seeing Chelle. All of his extensive military training had apparently not prepared him for this mission. His mind was racing, his palms were sweaty, and he felt like his heart was going to pound out of his chest. Riley couldnt believe he was having such a strong physical reaction to Chelle before he had even laid eyes on her. Maybe, Riley reasoned, this was just the result of pent up anxiety, stemming from the fact that he had built her up in his mind as this perfect creature over the years. But, the truth was, he hadnt seen her. Once he saw her, once the fantasy he had built up was disproven by reality, then he would be able to get past all of these overwhelming emotions. That knowledge did not, however, change the fact that he was feeling like a nervous teenage boy, not a grown man. He just needed to remain calm, stay focused and - with any luck - he would be on a plane tonight headed to Illinois, where he planned on staying for a few weeks before making his way to his new life in Louisiana. Riley found the address that Jason had texted to him, and he had to circle the block ten times before he was able to find a parking space to squeeze the rental car into. By the time he climbed out of the car, he was exhausted from driving all day, annoyed from having to look so hard for a place to park, and cognizant of the fact that he needed to be in Oakland in a few hours if he was going to make his flight. And who knew what traffic would be like? All in all, he was ready to get this reunion over with! He had already called Tommy, the buddy he was supposed to meet up with, and had told him that something had come up, so that was off his plate. Now, all he had to do was a quick inspection and an even quicker report. After that, he was out of here. He walked halfway up the block and stopped in front of the glass door that had the number 2202 painted over the top of it. He opened it and headed directly up the stairs. Katies apartment was

on the third floor. He glanced at the text message again to reconfirm the apartment number: #314. On his way up the stairs, he noticed that it was a nice building. Older, but well-maintained. He could see Katie living here. On his way to the unit, he passed an elderly woman who was peeking out of her door. She looked to be about 410 and she had curlers in her hair and a lit cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She eyed him suspiciously, but he smiled at her and noticed a faint flush rise from her neck to her cheeks. She mumbled something about him being a flirt and closed the door. Before long, he had reached the door that had a plaque next to it with the metal numbers '314' attached to it. He took a deep breath. It was go time. He knocked and waited for an answer. Nothing. He knocked louder and said, Chelle? Its Riley. Open up. Nada. He knocked again speaking loudly, Chelle, Katie is really worried about you. Jason sent me to check on you. Open the door. He put his ear to the door to see if he could hear any movement, any noise anything at all that would tell him that she was, in fact, alive and in the apartment. He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see a portly man who looked to be about seventy coming up the stairs with a large set of keys in his hands. Riley exhaled. Wow. He hadnt even realized that he had been holding his breath at the thought that it might be her walking up behind him. Hey there, young man, the elderly gentleman said as he bustled up beside Riley, I got a call from Katie and she said that you needed access to her apartment. Riley nodded. The older gentleman unlocked the door, There you go, son. My name is Randall, let me know if you need anything else. Riley extended his hand, Riley Sloan, nice to meet you. The man smiled warmly, Sloan, huh? Are you related to that boy Jason who swept in and stole our Katie from us? Riley liked this man, it made him feel better knowing that Katie, and Chelle for the last week, had been under his watchful eye. I am, sir. Jasons my little brother. Well, he seemed like a good man. But I told him, Randall sternly pointed his finger at Rileys chest, I said, if you hurt our Katie, mister, youll be dealing with me. And I meant it. Im sure you did, sir. And I'm also sure that he heard you loud and clear, Riley knew for a fact that Jason would never do anything to hurt Katie. Jason was one of the good guys. Not like him. Hey, do you know if Chelle, the girl who has been staying here, is out? Riley asked. Randall lowered his voice, That poor girl hasnt left the apartment in three days. She just

keeps having food delivered...and I did notice a couple of deliveries from the liquor store across the street, as well, Randalls eyes narrowed and he took a protective step in front of the door. Keeping his voice low, he asked, You arent the reason shes been holed up in here crying her eyes out, now are ya, son? No, sir. Riley answered honestly, Im just here to make sure that she's alright. Seemingly satisfied with that answer, the man patted Riley briskly on the arm before stepping around him and heading back down the stairs. Riley took a deep breath and opened the door, stepping into the darkened apartment. It took a moment for his vision to adjust to the dim light. He waited until it did before closing the front door. He looked around the small space and saw empty pizza boxes, Chinese food containers, wine bottles, bags of chips, and Snickers wrappers strewn across the kitchen table, the couch, and the floor. It smelled stale, like old food. He stepped around and over the junk food debris and headed to what he assumed was the bedroom. Chelle, open up. The landlord let me in, he said as he knocked on the door. Again, no answer. He turned the knob and slowly pushed it open. In the room he could make out a chest of drawers against the far wall, a small desk in the left corner, a chair beside the door that had more empty food containers and a bed in the middle of the room. In the center of the bed he saw a small form covered up with blankets. He stepped closer and not-so-quietly said, Hey, Chelle. Wake up, sleepy head. You have company. He waited to see if he detected any movement. When nothing happened he took two steps to the head of the bed and pulled the deep purple comforter back revealing a dark-haired sleeping beauty. He glanced up and down, taking a quick inventory of her stats. She was breathing steadily and sleeping soundly, in what was probably alcohol induced slumber from how deeply passed out she seemed to be. Man, she was gorgeous. She really did look like a princess. He thought back to the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale he had seen as a kid, on the big screen. Hmm. He seemed to remember something about a kiss. Looking down at Chelles perfect red lips, he was tempted to lean down and brush his mouth against hers. Shaking his head and moving quickly away from the side of the bed he raked his hands through his hair. This poor girl was passed out, and from the looks of the apartment was not doing so well emotionally. And what was his first reaction? He wanted to make-out with her. What the hell was wrong with him? He needed to get a grip.

He grimaced. He was certainly no Prince Charming. He stepped back into the safety of the small living room and assessed the situation, mentally took note of what needed to be done. Looking around, he realized that the apartment was in worse shape than he had originally thought. There was no way he was going to make his flight tonight. He had some calls to make, a rental car to return (no way was he paying $40 a day for parking) and, finally - some cleaning to do. --- ~ --Chelle came awake to the sound of a beating drum. Why would someone be playing a drum indoors? Especially this loudly? She tried to open her eyes, but found that her eyelids were encased in concrete. At least that was how it felt. They were heavy, and felt abrasive and itchy on her delicate eyes. She tried even harder to open them, but resigned herself to the fact that it was a losing battle. If she could just get the drummer to stop banging! She decided that she needed to sit up. Maybe that simple act would help her to open her eyes, to become aware of her surroundings. When she tried to lift her head, however, she realized her mistake. HUGE mistake! Her stomach rolled with nausea, and the banging sound became louder and was accompanied by sharp pains pains that felt like ragged shards of glass being twisted viciously into her brain. Note to self: Vodka and pizza do not mix. That's when she realized that there was no mystery drummer in the bedroom (although if she didn't feel so crappy, she may not have objected to having a mystery drummer in her bedroom...). The thump-thump-thumping she heard was the pounding of her own head. She laid her head back down in defeat, but did come up with a plan. She decided that she would lay perfectly still long enough for the nausea to pass, and then maybe she would just try and ROLL out of bed. Gravity, FTW! She carefully placed her hands over her stomach and concentrated on breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. You awake sleeping beauty? At the sound of the deep voice, adrenaline overcame all of her symptoms and Chelle bolted upright in bed, her eyes flying open. Adrenaline didn't help her vision, though, and it was pretty fuzzy. She was having a hard time focusing. She could just make out a shadowy figure sitting in the chair across from the bed. Just as she

was getting ready to scream bloody murder, the figure spoke again. Chelle, its Riley. Dont be scared. The deep sexy voice certainly sounded like Riley. From what she could make out of his features, the seated figure looked like (a blurry version of) Riley. The frame was right the blurry blob had Riley's wide, muscled shoulders and taut, sculpted waist. The rest of the features fit, as well. She could barely make out dark blonde hair and sun-kissed tanned skin. But what in Gods name would Riley Sloan be doing here!? Riley? Chelle spoke his name in disbelief. Trying to make some sort of sense of what was going on, she asked, Is it...what are you...why are you here? Sightseeing. What? she asked, bewildered. Sightseeing, he repeated. In my bedroom? she murmured, puzzled. She rubbed her eyes, trying to clear her vision to see if he was really here, in the flesh. After all these years. Live and in person and in a chair that sat only a few feet away from her. Was it true? Or was he just a smoking hot hallucination? Probably the latter, she concluded. She was most likely experiencing the final stages of her complete and total mental melt down. Well, she thought sanguinely, I can think of worse ways to lose my mind than imagining the sexiest man in the world in my bedroom with me. If I have to go crazy, at least I have company. Or, at least I'm imagining I do... The figment of her imagination smiled at her and said, Jason called me. Katie was worried about you. She's been trying to get a hold of you for a few days. When she wasnt able to reach you, she wanted to fly home early to check on you. But, since I was already in California, they asked if I could stop by and make sure that you were doing alright. Okay, so maybe not a figment of her addled imagination. She didn't imagine that some sexy hallucination she conjured up would sit there talking to her about phone calls and plane schedules. She said, I havent gotten any calls from her. She reached over to retrieve her phone from the nightstand but her arms were so heavy that she didnt quite make it. Your phone was dead. Its charging in the kitchen. She tried to get out of bed, fueled by new urgency, saying, I need to go call her. However, it seemed that even new urgency was not enough to overcome physical deficits, and this proved to be much trickier than she had assumed it would be. The blankets she lay in were wrapped around her tightly, and try as she might to free her arms and legs, it felt as though her limbs were filled with lead. She was having a tough time disentangling herself.

Riley stood and stepped towards her. She stopped writhing and just stared. Good LORD that was a mighty fine male specimen moving toward her! Riley was wearing a white v-neck t- shirt that he filled out like one of the models she used to drool over on the Calvin Klein billboards. Well, to be fair, she'd actually drooled over them because they reminded her of Riley... He looked like a Greek God in jeans. He stood beside her bed, I already called them last night after I got here, and I let them know that you were okay. He picked up a bottle of water that she hadnt noticed was sitting on the night stand. You got here last night? she asked incredulously as he twisted the cap and handed the bottle to her. She took the proffered bottle and, as she did, her fingers brushed his. Her body reacted as if she had gotten an electric shock. A zinging sensation raced from the pads of her fingertips where she had felt his hand beneath hers and zoomed all the way up her arm. She shivered. Trying to cover up her completely out of proportion physical reaction to this innocent touch, she quickly brought the water bottle to her lips and started sipping from it. She had no idea if she had, in fact, been successful in concealing her reaction. Maybe he'd think she'd been...thirsty? It was worth a shot. When she looked up at him, he DID seem to have a small smirk on his lips. But she could have been imagining it. Yes, I got here last night. The landlord let me in. I tried to wake you, but you were passed out cold. Where did you sleep? she asked as she took another small sip of water. She definitely felt a little dehydrated...in addition to all of the other things that she was definitely feeling. I didnt, he answered matter-of-factly. Her brow furrowed, You didnt sleep? He simply shook his head. At all? He shook his head again. Chelle knew that she was still a little (well, maybe a lot) foggy-brained...but that simply didnt make any sense. She was certain she would be having the same reaction even if she were clear-headed. Why in the world would he not sleep? Well, she thought dryly, only one way to find out. Why didnt you sleep? I didnt want you to wake up and be scared that some guy was in the apartment. Plus, I didnt know how much you had drunk, so I wanted to make sure you were alright.

So you just watched me sleep, she smiled sheepishly before taking another drink of water, Sorry that must have been boring. His voice dropped an octave and there was almost a growl to it as he said softly, No, it wasnt. She shivered again, this time solely from the baritone vibrations of his voice. Her eyes shot up to meet his. He looked down at her, his gaze intense andhot. She felt a tightening in her stomach (and a fluttering a little farther south) from just the expression in his eyes alone. Wow. He had such amazing eyes. It was almost as if she could lose herself in them, they were deep and always held so much emotion. She had forgotten what looking into them made her feel. It was like when you didn't eat a favorite food for several years. Obviously, you remembered how much you loved it, but the passing of time makes that memory almost academic. Until, of course, you taste it again. Then, the flavors hitting your taste buds bring all the memories of every time you ever tasted that food flooding back to you at once, all the emotion connected to it, and you truly remember how much you loved it. And you're amazed that you could have ever forgotten. When you put a forkful of that long-forgotten favorite food into your mouth again, it was like a mouth orgasm. This was like that. But with eyes. It was an eye orgasm. An eyegasm, if you will. She felt her breath begin to quicken. Riley took a step back from the side of the bed and cleared his throat. Why dont you take a shower or a bath or whatever and Ill go make some breakfast. He turned and started towards the bedroom door, walking with purpose. Umm, Im not sure theres anything to make. He stopped mid-exit. Without turning back to face her, he said lightly, Then Ill go down to the market on the corner. Do you have any requests? Riley stood perfectly still and Chelle took a moment to appreciate the view from the back. Man, he looked as good going as he did coming. His back muscles were taut beneath the thin white cotton of his t-shirt, and HOLY MOLY, he had a perfect rear-end. He had the kind of physique that people carved marble statues of. It really wasnt fair for one man to be that insanely hot. Chelle? He turned back towards her, and she realized belatedly that she had let the silence go on an uncomfortably long time. She immediately shot her gaze up to his face, her eyes becoming as big as saucers. Embarrassment caused heat to race up her face, coloring her cheeks a deep red, she was sure. She was pretty certain that he had caught her staring at his backside, but he didnt make a

comment about it. Huh? she asked innocently. What sounds good for breakfast? The corners of his lips twitched as though he was trying to suppress a smile. Well, even if she had been caught, at least Riley was too much of a gentleman to call her out on it. Oh, right. Umm, yeah. If you could just get me some orange juice and maybe bread for toast that would be good, she stammered. She wasnt sure if her stomach could handle much more than that. Got it, he smiled and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him but not before he favored her with a small wink. She smiled weakly. So, he had seen. She flopped back on the bed, letting out a loud groan as she covered her face. Oh, and Chelle? she heard him say as the door cracked back open. She popped back up into a sitting position, and said, Yes? in as non-nonchalant a tone as she could manage. Take a picture next time, he said, a light teasing tone playing at the edges of his voice, It'll last longer.

Chapter Four
As Riley stepped outside of the apartment building onto the street a cold gust of wind hit him smack dab in the face. Good, he thought. Since he wasn't in a position to take a cold shower then the chill of the wind would be the next best thing. Damn it. Big mistake. Thinking of a 'cold shower' made him think of any kind of shower...and that had him imagining Chelle, upstairs, naked...water dripping down her skin... DAMN! He shook his head. That was not a visual he should be entertaining. It was bad enough he had been sporting wood for about five hours now. The first thing he had done last night after checking on Chelle was call Jason and let him know that he could tell Katie that Chelle was fine, and that he was letting her sleep but would be staying the night to make sure she was alright. Jason had thanked him, a relieved tone in his voice that let Riley know that Katie's worry over Chelle had probably been impacting their enjoyment of the honeymoon. As soon as he had hung up he gave the apartment a thorough cleaning and then he went into the bedroom to wait for Chelle to wake up. The last thing he had expected was to get hard just watching her sleep but, damn. She was just so beautiful. It also didnt help that she kept twisting and turning under the covers, giving him brief glimpses of skin. Then she must have gotten warm, because at about 4 am she started kicking the covers completely off. That wouldnt have been any cause for concern except for the fact that she was only wearing a thin grey t-shirt and white cotton panties. The t-shirt kept riding up her waist exposing her tight, flat, sexy-as-hell belly. Which in turn kept making Riley picture trailing his fingertips over it...oh, God. It made Rileys mouth water just thinking about it now. And that didn't even begin to cover her gorgeous long, toned legs and her ass...damn. Her ass was, in and of itself, a thing of dreams. In fact, her whole body was like a walking, breathing wet dream come to life. Riley must have covered her back up with the blankets at least a half a dozen times, but she just kept kicking and shoving the covers back off of her. It was like, even in her sleep, she knew how profoundly she affected him and wanted to make the effect as powerful as possible. It was enough to drive a man crazy! He had almost laughed out loud when she apologized to him for how boring it must have

been to sit up all night and watch her sleep. Yeah, right. If she knew what he had been thinking about the whole night, she wouldn't be the one apologizing, that was for damn sure. He would. Then she had looked up at him, the same way she used to when they were kids, on those nights when they would stay up talking till the sun came up. It was almost too much for him. He had almost lost control. Because, when it came down to it, she wasnt some nave young teenager smiling up at him anymore. Rachelle Thomas had grown up. She was a woman now. She was all woman. And it took every ounce of self-discipline, self-control...hell, self-preservation that Riley could muster to resist the urge to pin her back down on the bed and kiss that look of wonder off of her face and replace it with a look of ecstasy. Add to that the fact he had caught her checking his ass...well, he knew if he didnt get out of there ASAP he would not, could not, be responsible for his actions. He was only human. Now, as he stepped into the small grocery store on the corner, he knew he was going to have to come up with a game plan to make it through the day, and one thing that game plan was absolutely going to include was leaving the apartment and getting out into the city. He was just a man, after all. A mortal man of flesh and blood. He knew that he absolutely could not trust himself to be alone in that apartment for the entire long day until eight pm, when he needed to leave to catch his flight. He wasnt sure what he was going to do, but he knew he only had a little bit of time to figure it out. Once she was showered and done eating breakfast, if he didnt have a plan of action solidly in place, he honestly didnt think he could control himself. ---~--Chelle finished her shower and stepped out onto the yellow floor mat. She dried off with a white fluffy towel and then wrapped it around her body snugly. She was feeling a little more human...which was both good and bad. She was glad to have her wits about her again and to be thinking more clearly, that was true enough. But with that clarity came the knowledge that Riley Sloan was here. In the flesh. And WHOA NELLY what flesh that was! Riley had always been handsome. He had always made her heart skip a beat. As a pre-teen and teenager, butterflies would flitter around in her stomach whenever he had been near - but nothing...NOTHING...could have prepared her for what he looked like now, or the effect he was having on her in...well, not so much her stomach...lets just say an area slightly south of her stomach. On the bright side, she had been spending the last week feeling sorry for herself, and wondering if she could ever have any feelings for a man that wasnt David. So...question answered! And that answer was a loud and resounding YES.

She had always been attracted to David. He was a good looking guy. She had enjoyed the physical aspects of their relationship. When they did have sex it was fine...he was fine. But he had never made her feel anything close to what she had felt just a moment ago when she had simply looked into Rileys gorgeous hazel eyes. Riley. HOLY MOLY! Riley was hot. Like...flames-coming-off-his-body-that-will-burn-you-if-you-get-too-close-or-dare-to-touchhim kind of hot. Hmm. She hadn't phrased the metaphor that way intentionally, but it brought up a good point. It was probably a good thing to keep in mind - the fact that if you play with fire, you get burned. She put a hand to her forehead. This was ridiculous. She was getting so far ahead of herself, cautioning herself for nothing! She was thinking of the situation as if Riley even wanted to play. She knew he probably still thought of her as Eddies little brat of a sister. An annoyance. An inconvenience. And why shouldnt he, she thought. Just look at the facts. Case-in-point, this very situation. After not seeing each other for over a decade, their very first re-introduction consisted of a situation where he was being asked to look after her, to check on her, to make sure she was okay. She was an inconvenience. She squared her shoulders with renewed determination. She was going to take back some control in a situation that felt 100% out of control. She was going to solve both his problem and hers in one fell swoop. As soon as he returned, she would let him know that she was fine, thank him for his time, and send him on his merry way. Problems solved! There was no possible way she could get burned if the fire was gone. And if she asserted herself and let him know in no uncertain terms that, yes, she had been having a bit of a rough patch, but she was doing better now - then he could be on his way. She would be out of his hair. True, she may have been a slight inconvenience when she was passed out, unconscious. BUT now that she was up and about, he didnt have to worry about her. No sirree! Quickly and efficiently, she towel dried her hair and pulled on the first clothes she saw, which were a pair of jeans and a blue thermal. She took in her reflection in the mirror. Wow! An entire week of nothing but junk food and alcohol seemed to have caught up with her. There were deep purple bags under her eyes, and her jeans were a little tighter than she remembered them being the last time she'd worn themwhich had been last week. Oh well, damn it. It would have to do! She shouldnt even care what she looked like. Its not like Riley would notice anyway! Taking one last deep, fortifying breath she turned the knob and opened the bedroom door. She

might as well get this over with, quick and painless - like pulling off a Band-Aid. The sooner she sent him on his way the sooner she could be certain that she wasnt inconveniencing him, and - more importantly - the sooner she could stop worrying about getting burned. She stepped out to a bright clean apartment, she blinked several times at the light flooding the room. The drapes were pulled back, blinds were up and all the windows were wide open. Chelle looked around. It was like seeing the apartment for the first time. Since she had arrived she had kept everything shut up tight, closed and dark. She had not even noticed how beautiful the small space was. Katie had carved out quite a life for herself here in San Francisco. Even with most of the items that had filled the apartment now packed up and shipped back to Harpers Crossing, the pieces that were left really made the space feel like a home. A home which, right now, smelled like bacon, eggs, and coffee. At first Chelle thought the smells would cause her to get nauseous again, but that didnt happen. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and she heard her stomach rumble loudly. Sounds like someones hungry, she heard the light, teasing tone in Riley's voice and felt herself fall right back into the bond of camaraderie they used to share. Effortlessly, like a tongue in groove joint, her soul fell back into lockstep with his. She closed her eyes, reveling in it and refusing to think about the consequences right at that moment. She turned to look toward the kitchen, which was where his voice had originated. Riley stood with his back to her, cooking at the stove. Chelles heart melted, just a little. Damn fire. No man had ever cooked for her before. She knew it wasnt like he was cooking for her. He was just making the two of them breakfast. But it did kinda sorta feel like he was cooking for her. And, since no guy had ever cooked for her, she had never realized how sexy it was. She stood watching him at the stove. Her mouth was watering, sure enough, but it had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with the cook. Riley glanced over his shoulder, Do you want coffee with your OJ? For an instant, she felt caught, like a deer in headlights. She thought that somehow Riley had read her thoughts, felt her energy, knew what she was thinking. She thought his question was some kind of double entendre, like when idiots replaced their wolf-whistling with some clever phrase like, Can I get some fries with that shake? It took her only an instant to mentally process the words and realize that wasn't what was going on, but it was an important instant - it served to snap her out of the trance that she had begun to fall into. Um, yeah...but I can get it. She forced her feet to start moving and headed into the kitchen.

She moved to the far left corner cabinet where the mugs were kept. Thanks for cleaning up, she said awkwardly, You, um...you really didnt have to do that. Not a problem, his baritone voice rumbled. The sound made Chelles toes curl and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up as a sensual chill ran through her. Fire, she reminded herself, four-alarm fire. You don't need to get burned right now, girl! Do you want a cup? She asked as she stepped around him and reached for the mugs on the top shelf of the cabinet. They were just out of her reach, so she went up on her tip toes. She could feel the cold ceramic of the mugs brushing her fingertips...almost there...just stretch a little higher... Chelle felt Riley move so that he was standing directly behind her. He easily reached the top shelf and pulled two mugs out, setting them down on the counter. She froze when he didnt immediately move away. She felt as if she couldn't draw a breath. She was utterly paralyzed but not just her. She felt like the entire world now existed in a state of suspended animation. She waited. She could sense more than actually feel his solid form directly behind her. Her first instinct was to lean back and melt against him. Nope! Melting was probably a bad idea. Not just probably. Definitely. Bad idea. Bad, BAD idea. Melting indicates heat, heat comes from fire, and fire equals burn. Chelle decided to play it safe and turn to face him, thinking he would back away. She thought wrong. Riley stood perfectly still in front of her, his golden eyes staring down at her, the liquid pools boring into her own. Oh yeah, definitely fire. Hot-hot-hot. She couldnt take the heat, in fact, so she dropped her gaze and looked toward the ground. Riley's large frame surrounded her, encompassing her, becoming her whole world. Soon she was aware of nothing but the nearness of his flesh. He slowly placed both of his large hands on the counter, one on each side of her so that his arms formed a barrier. She was trapped in the corner of the kitchen. She wasn't sure she ever wanted to escape. She started to look up at him to ask what he was doing, but her eyes were sidetracked midway through that journey. As soon as they alighted on his sexy, muscular chest she forgot that she wanted to ask him what he thought he was doing...hell, she forgot her own name. Suddenly, there was nothing in the world to her but the fact that Riley Sloan was mere millimeters away from her and, if she wanted to touch him, all she would need to do was reach out the slightest little bit. Her breathing quickened. Her heart raced. Her belly tightened. The electricity running between them was palpable, at least on her end. There wasn't even room in her consciousness to wonder what he was experiencing, so overwhelmed by the sensations

that she was feeling. She could feel her chest rising and falling, could hear nothing but the pounding bass line of her heartbeat in her ears. She tried to get herself together. Figuring that panting at Rileys mere nearness may not be what one would consider playing it cool - nor would it be the most attractive thing in the world she decided she should try and alleviate the tension a bit. Not having the slightest clue how to go about doing that, she simply looked up into his sexy hazel eyes and smiled and squeaked out a simple, Hi. Emotion flooded those amazing hazel eyes, and a deep rumbling sound, one that could be likened to a growl, vibrated from his chest. It sent a delicious thrill running down Chelles spine. She stood perfectly still, her lower back pressed up against the counter. She never wanted this moment to end...but at the same time, she was excited to see where it would go. She stood, remaining stock still, waiting...just waiting...for his next move. Yesterday, if you would have asked her if Riley Sloan would be standing in this small kitchen, pinning her in the corner, desire flashing in his eyes...Good God! She probably would have snorted and shot back that the scenario was too crazy even for her wildest dreams. But right now, in this moment, it seemed as if her wildest dreams might just be coming true. Breathe, just remember to breathe! Riley leaned down and rested his forehead against hers, just for a moment. Hi, he whispered. Chelle breathed out, her knees weakening. But then, with ninja like quickness, he was gone. Before she even had time to blink he was standing a few feet away from her, back in front of the stove pulling pieces of bacon off of the fryer and placing them on a plate. She stood frozen where he had left her and tried to decide if she had, in fact, just imagined that little encounter or if it had in fact really just occurred. Wildest dreams much? It had felt real...but as she watched Riley walking calmly to the small kitchen table, two breakfast plates in hand, she thought that she may have indeed taken a trip to crazy town. He was behaving for all the world as if nothing had just passed between them. Then, when he leaned over to set the plates on the table, she looked down and noticed how snug his jeans looked in the groin area. She smiled to herself. Aha! So she hadnt imagined it. Riley Sloan had been affected by her. For some reason, this made her want to rethink her plan of immediately kicking him out. Suddenly, spending some time with Riley didnt seem like all that bad of an idea. Not that bad of an idea at all, as a matter of fact... No, waitmust not play with fire! She knew she needed to stick with the plan. She had gotten

burned, and burned badly, by David and he was barely even the tiny flame of a candle in the heat department. Riley Sloan was a four alarm inferno! If she tangled with him, she would never make it out unscathed. So after breakfast, do you want to catch a cable car down to Fishermans Wharf? Have you been down there yet? He sat at the table and began eating. No, she hadnt been there. Yes, she wanted to go with him. Why did he have to make this so much harder than it already was? Actually Riley...look. I appreciate you stopping by and checking on me. She finished pouring the coffee and carried both steaming hot mugs to the table as she sat down. But I am fine, really. You dont have to stay and babysit me. I promise I will keep my phone on and return all phone calls I miss, alright? That way no one will be worried about me. I dont think I have to babysit you. He looked serious and his jaw flinched. My flight isn't until 8 oclock tonight and Id like to see some of the city today. You dont have to keep me company if you dont want to. Well, when he put it like that... No! I mean...yes...I mean... she stumbled. Riley gave her a good-natured half smile, Well, which is it? She smiled back, Yes, sure, that sounds like fun. What had she just agreed to? An entire day with Riley Sloan. Alone. That thought should make her nervous, and it dida little. But mostly she just felt happy. She smiled. He made another noise that sounded like a groan and then snapped at her, Eat. She looked up at him, a little shocked by his tone, expecting to see him giving her a stern look or something. But he was just bent over his plate, shoveling food in his mouth. Alrighty then, looks like someones in a hurry, she thought. Well, there's only one thing to do. Eat.

Chapter Five
Riley was starting to relax a little now that they had left the all-too-confining space of the tiny apartment. He almost hadn't been able to control himself when he had stepped behind Chelle to grab the coffee mugs. He had wanted so badly to turn her around, pick her up, and place her on the counter. Oh, God. To step in between her legs and pull her against him. To kiss her sweet mouth until coffee and breakfast were the last things on their minds... He had just about gotten himself under control, but then when she looked up at him with those incredible almond-shaped brown eyes and smiled...his control had just about snapped. Then she had taken it to another level entirely by voicing that tentative, Hi. Good Lord! His resolve, at that point, had almost completely snapped. There was just something about her smile that had always gotten to him. Whenever she smiled at him, it was like her whole face lit up. It was sexy as hell. Just thinking of it now he was growing harder by the second. He had to stop his mind from going there or he was going to have a permanent imprint of his zipper on his dick by the end of their little sightseeing adventure. Plus, walking around with a hard-on wasn't the most appropriate or comfortable way to spend the day. It occurred to him then that it had been a good long while since he had gotten laid. Maybe that was it. Maybe he just needed to hook up with someone, release a little of that pent up tension. Yeah. That had to be the issue. Well, it would be taken care of soon enough. He and Megan had been sending messages back and forth on Facebook. He shrugged to himself. He had always liked Megan well enough when they had hooked up back in high school, and he had already made plans to see her when he got back to Harpers Crossing. So that would take care of that. Now he just needed to concentrate on keeping himself under control and enjoying this beautiful day in San Francisco. And it was a beautiful day that was an understatement, as a matter of fact. The weather was perfect, eighty degrees with a slight breeze. The air was so bright that it actually seemed to sparkle. It almost felt magical. He just had to get his head on straight - the one that ought to be doing the thinking, that is...not the one that actually was. Riley and Chelle walked several blocks to Powell St., got their tickets, and stood in line. Riley tried to think of something to say and not just something, but the right thing. Chelle seemed preoccupied. She was quieter than he remembered her being. Then again, he thought, she probably has

a lot on her mind. Its not like she's here on a real vacation. She's here because of that douchebag David. Riley wasnt sure if he should ask her about it. She was probably aware that he knew what had happened, but it seemed like an awkward conversation to have. Plus, she may not even want to talk about it. Better to stick to safer subjects. So Eddie mentioned that you're a nurse now. He felt ridiculous making small talk with someone he'd known practically his whole life, but he wasnt sure what else to do. It was either that or grab her by the waist, pull her against him and kiss her senseless. So, yeah. Small talk was probably the way to go. Yep, I really love it, she responded, turning toward him. Her face lit up with one of those smiles, and it almost knocked him flat on his ass. Well, damn it. Maybe silence is the way to go, Riley thought as he tried to keep his reaction to her under control. She continued, I work in labor and delivery. I just love being around all those babies. Suddenly a picture popped into his mind unbidden. An image of her sitting in a rocking chair, holding their baby, looking down at the child as she stroked its tiny head and whispered and sang, pausing every once in a while to kiss the tiny, perfect nose... he shook his head to clear it, to no avail. In fact, instead of erasing the image like an etch-a-sketch, it seemed to be making the vision more clear like, say, a Polaroid picture coming into focus. He was, honestly, stunned that his mind would even go there. A very long time ago Riley had decided that a wife, kids, and white picket fence would never be in his future. He just wasnt that guy. He had nothing against it. In fact, sometimes he really wished he was that guy. He knew part of his reluctance to even hope for anything like that came from all he had been through with his Mom. Well, actually, all he had seen his Dad go through because of her was more like it. He never wanted to end up like his Dad had - trying to take care of kids and a depressed wife. Being the breadwinner, disciplinarian, cook, and maid. Of course, he and Seth had helped out with Alex and Bobby. Jason had always been pretty self-sufficient, but the younger ones needed a lot of time and attention. Looking back, he wished he would have done more. He wished he could have managed to not have been such a problem child. He realized now, as an adult that he was just acting out because of being angry and confused about his Mom. But, damn, he certainly hadnt made life any easier for his poor Dad! For quite a few years now he had been wanting to reach out and apologize to his Dad, to tell him that he was sorry for being a little shit, especially when what his Dad really needed was support.

But, he never felt right having a conversation that important over the phone or email. That was definitely a dialogue he wanted to strike up with his Dad in-person. They climbed onto the cable car and sat down on the wooden bench. Chelle was looking down, fidgeting with her hands, So, how does it feel to be home? I mean in the states. Youve been overseas for a few years right? She seemed to be nervous. Great. He wanted her to have a nice day, not be worried about trying to filling awkward silences. He needed to remove his head from his ass, and he needed to do it now. He needed to get real comfortable real fast, because she was obviously picking up the awkward vibe from him. He turned towards her and put his arm around the back of the seat, smiling casually, Honestly, I dont think its really sunk in yet. I mean, I've known this time was coming for a while now. I wasnt even close to being tempted to re-enlist this time around, no matter what they offered me. I was definitely ready to get out. Really? You didn't like the military? I don't know where I got this impression maybe from Jason, or maybe from Eddie but I always thought that you loved it. Riley nodded thoughtfully, I do love...or, you know, I did love it...it had just turned into something that I didn't recognize. The whole philosophy of the young guys coming in, the way that tactics are evolving...it's more about drone strikes than hand to hand combat now, and the younger guys understand that. They recruit them that way. I don't. I've always believed that you look the enemy in the eye as you attack, at least metaphorically, if not literally. Riley stared off into the distance, then shrugged, It was time for me to put myself out to pasture, he said with a self-deprecating smile, Let the young bucks take over. Chelle placed a hand gently over his and said lightly, I wouldn't exactly call you ancient. Not quite yet. Riley felt his pulse begin to speed up and realized that he needed to get the conversation back on more neutral ground. Anyway, he continued, It still seems more like Im on leave, you know - it doesnt quite feel permanent yet. Yeah, that makes sense. She smiled up at him. Her smile slammed into him like a Mack truck. God, he didnt think he would ever get used to the way that smile made him feel. I cant seem to shake the feeling that I should be checking in with David, she continued, I keep catching myself glancing at my phone to see if hes called. Riley felt himself tense up at the mention of Davids name. He didnt like the feeling that Davids name on her lips caused in him. It felt dangerously close to jealousy. Her eyes widened and she quickly added, Not that its the same thing at all, you know...my

relationship status is nothing compared to your military service. Riley mentally forced himself to relax, she had no idea his reaction had nothing to do her comparison of their situations and everything to do with the fact the he was having a completely irrational reaction to the mere mentioning of Davids name. He smiled, Actually it is the same in a lot of ways. We are both closing the door on big chapters in our lives. She paused a moment, and then added playfully, And we're both handing over the reins to 18year-olds. They laughed, relaxing as the gorgeous architecture flew by them, and the tension between them was broken. As they went up and over Nob Hill, Riley looked over the shimmering surface of the ocean. He had always loved water. Over the last twelve years he had seen a lot of it - oceans, seas, rivers, gulfs - and no matter what the circumstances were that surrounded him at the time, when he saw large bodies of water, he felt a sense of calm wash over him. But right now, sitting next to Chelle in a cable car in San Francisco, he realized that it felt a million times better seeing it with her beside him. He didn't think there was a whole lot that wouldn't be a million times better with her by his side. Damn. What had he gotten himself into here? He absently rubbed her shoulder with his thumb and he felt her jump a little under his touch. Holy crap! He hadn't even realized that he intended to touch her. It had been completely natural. If he was going to keep his hands to himself today, he was going to have to actively be monitoring himself at all times. He was just too drawn to her. If he let his guard down or relaxed even a little, he would touch her. It felt like she was a magnet that his body was drawn to. He placed his hand on the wooden bench and wrapped his fingers around it to anchor himself. Because no matter how much he wanted to touch her, Rachelle Thomas was off limits. Completely, one hundred percent, off limits.

Chapter Six
As they exited the cable car on Bay Street, Chelle was still having a tough time wrapping her mind around the fact that Riley was here, beside her. He was safe and sound, she was standing right next to him. She could reach out and touch him, although she was trying her best not to. There were too many nights to count, over the years since Riley had left for basic training, that Chelle had lain awake and wondered where he was. If he was okay. If she was ever going to see him again. She would pray that God would make sure that he got home safely. Not only physically, either, but that he would come home emotionally intact as well. She would catch herself casually trying to work Rileys name into conversations and ask Eddie if he had spoken to him. At first, her brother would always tell her where Riley was and what he was doing. But once Riley had become a part of a Special Ops team about seven years ago, the updates were few and far between. Eddie not only heard from him less, he rarely knew where Riley was or how long he would be there. Then, a year ago, everything had changed. That was when Riley had gotten a Facebook page. Once she had seen the update in her feed that informed the world (well, all of their friends, at any rate...) that Eddie and Riley had become friends on the social networking site, she had to admit she had cyber-stalked him a teensy weensy little bit. Not in the hey-baby-I-wanna-hook-up way or anything. She was, after all, an engaged woman. Not to mention, that just wasnt her style. No, she had just been checking in on him, looking at his posts and...OKAY...maybe a picture or two as well. Or maybe three. Or...maybe all forty-seven that he had either posted or been tagged in. But not all the time! Justdaily. Or so. She couldn't help it! Seeing him alive and well gave her a sense of peace she hadnt realized she had been missing. But, she guessed it made sense, because not a day had gone by since he had gotten on that bus to leave for basic training twelve years ago, in which she hadnt thought about him, worried about him, and wanted to make sure that he was alive and well...and happy. Yes, happy, too. He deserved to be happy. Everyone in Harpers Crossing had always seemed to think that he was this big, infamous troublemaker. They treated him like a delinquent. But thats not the Riley she knew. She had never understood why everyone else didnt see what she saw. She heard how people talked about him all the time growing up. Of all the Sloan boys, he definitely had the worst reputation...and that was really saying something! She had never known much about Seth, the oldest. She just remembered him being quiet and

mysterious. People always referred to him as brooding. Then there was Riley, the bad boy. He never followed rules. Between breaking and entering, getting in brawls at local bars, and borrowing cars to go joyriding before he was even old enough to have a license...well, he had had his fair share of scrapes with the law. People were always talking about how dangerous he was. But Chelle had never seen him like that, not really. Although she had to admit he had starred in many of the bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold fantasies. Then there was Jason, the charmer in the bunch, who was aptly nicknamed Romeo. He had a natural charisma. Guys wanted to be friends with him and girls wanted to be with him. To the dismay of most of the female population of Harpers Crossing, the only girl that was on Jasons radar was his new bride Katie. Since the day he met her in kindergarten, he had been head over heels for that girl. Alex was next. He was the player. He went through women like most guys went through deodorant. And finally the youngest, Bobby. He was the strong, silent type. Chelle hoped that when Riley went back home, people would see him for the man he was today and not try to put him back in the box they had placed him in during his adolescence. She wasnt holding her breath on that count, though, because Alex had been away and when he returned, everyone just expected him to be the same womanizer he was in his teens. That might be a different story, though, because so far it seemed like Alex was living up to his reputation. Wait, what was she doing? She was imagining a whole scenario where Riley came home and built a life, and she wasnt even sure if Riley was planning on going back to Harpers Crossing! For all she knew, he never planned on stepping foot there again! Whoa. That thought suddenly made her feel really sad. Why was that? It shouldn't matter to her...should it? She tried to shake off the sudden melancholy. No, it shouldnt matter to her what his plans, now that he was out of the Marines, might be. They didnt affect her at all. Or...they shouldn't affect her at all. Her mind knew that. Now someone just needed to give her heart the memo. But, now that she had started thinking about what Rileys plans were in the future, the curiosity was driving her absolutely bonkers. Hmmmm....she would have to try to think of a way to subtly work in some reference to his future plans, hoping to get some clue as to what they might be without actually coming straight out and asking. She could be subtle. Just like she used to be with Eddie! Chelle looked over at him as they made their way around the crowds at Fishermans Wharf, trying to plot and plan her oh-so-subtle inquiry as to what the future might hold for him...and completely lost her train of thought. He was just so gorgeous!

His light brown eyes had flecks of hidden green in them, which she had always found intriguing. Mesmerizing, really. They looked nearly iridescent in the sun. And, although she never before would have considered a jawline sexy, Riley was making her rethink that assessment. Because...yeah. His jawline was inspiring all kinds of thoughts in her mind, and not one of them was of the innocent variety. She wanted to reach out and touch it, she wanted to press her lips to it and pepper kisses up and down it... She was beginning to get all hot and bothered just picturing it. Stop! She commanded herself. She needed to stop this line of thinking immediately. Riley was being a good friend to her, to Jason, to Eddie, to Katie...and how was she repaying him? By having all kinds of naughty thoughts! Way to go Chelle, she thought, real classy. Okay, new plan. Distraction through conversation. So Riley, now that youre out what are your plans? Oops! Hadn't she just been trying to mentally manufacture a more subtle way to go about sussing that out? Oh, well, she thought. At least Riley doesn't seem thrown by her directness. Well, I'm headed back home for a week or two. You know, visit the family for a little bit. And then, after that, down to New Orleans. Chelles heart sank. She knew it was utterly ridiculous to be disappointed that he didnt plan on moving back to Harpers Crossing. Still, that didnt change the fact that she was. Wait a minute...he hadnt said he planned on living in New Orleans. Maybe he just wanted to visit there. For vacation? Or are you planning on staying? She mustered every ounce of strength she possessed (and it definitely took every ounce!) in order to keep her tone sounding blas. She knew that her whole lifes happiness did not rest in his answer...but it certainly felt like it did. To live. For a while at least. A few buddies of mine from the Corp moved down there and opened a bar. I invested in it, and I'm a partner. So far Ive just been a silent partner since I was still enlisted. Chelle tried to mask the feeling of sadness that washed over her. Why did she feel like someone had just run over her dog? Thats great! She said, maybe just a tad too heartily. She pasted on her best fake smile and started walking a little faster. She felt her hand being pulled and she was stopped short as Riley spun her to look at him. Hey, he said, his face etched with concern, is everything alright? Chelle nodded enthusiastically, Yep, Im good. He did not look the slightest bit convinced as his brow furrowed and he reached out and

tucked a strand of hair that was flapping wildly across her face behind her ear. Are you sure? You seem like somethings wrong. A rush of warmth raced through her as his fingers lightly brushed her neck. She closed her eyes. How could such an innocent gesture feel so erotic? It seemed that her body was wired to respond to even the slightest contact with his. She couldnt even imagine what it would feel like if he really touched her. She felt his stare and looked up into his eyes. She couldnt read precisely what was behind his expression, but his gaze was definitely filled with emotion. Why in the name of all that is holy did he have to be so perceptive? She had never been around any guy that had been so in tune to what she was feeling. Every other relationship that she had ever been in (which, if we were talking serious relationships, was sadly just the one) had been nothing like this. If she was mad, or upset, or had hurt feelings well, she would always have to spell it all out for David. Even after she had, he usually responded by either ignoring her, or justifying his behavior and listing the reasons why she shouldnt be feeling the way she was. But not Riley. Nope. He was tuned to her like a fine instrument. Ive missed you, she breathed. She wasnt sure what prompted that, and she probably shouldnt have said it. But she just needed to tell him. His mouth curved at the corners and a small smile appeared on his face, I've missed you, too. Her eyebrows shot up. Really? She wasnt sure what she had expected him to say, but it hadnt been that! Maybe he was just saying it to be nice. Yep, he had probably just said it out of politeness. It was a courtesy Missed you. His expression turned serious and his voice a little shaky as he leaned in and said quietly, More than you know. Chelle's mind started racing a mile a minute. She was having trouble processing what he had just said. What did he mean, more than you know?' She didnt know that he missed her at all so any amount of missing would have been more that she knew! She wasnt sure about the significance of his admission, but there was one thing she was sure about: those words had definitely made her heart skip a beat.

Chapter Seven
As Chelle and Riley walked around Fishermans Wharf, Riley could honestly say he didn't know when the last time was that he had had this much fun. He loved watching Chelle interact with people. Everyone just seemed drawn to her. She didnt seem to notice the effect that she had on people. To her, it probably just felt normal. But Riley had been around the world. He had met a lot of people, and he knew how special it was. He knew how special she was. After they had lunch, as they were walking along the pier, they passed a mom of three trying to change her infant's diaper and keep her other two little ones corralled close by. Chelle didn't miss a beat. She stopped, kneeling down and asking the young boy and girl their names and ages. Then she started talking to them about their favorite movies. The children were enamored of her, of course, and when the mom had finished attending to the infant, she looked up at Chelle and said gratefully, Thanks, youre a lifesaver! Chelle smiled and waved it off like it was no big deal before saying goodbye to her two new little friends and cooing over the baby. As the afternoon wore on, Riley and Chelle went into pretty much every single souvenir shop they passed. Chelle bought a pink stuffed seal for Emily, a shirt and hat for Eddie, a snow globe for Katie and several other trinkets for other friends and co-workers - and even some for long-term patients she had gotten to know in the hospital. She happily shopped, explaining why she was choosing each gift specifically for each person. Every time she relayed the story of why each gift had a personal meaning, her face lit up and she smiled. Damn, Riley thought. Her smiles were becoming like a drug to him. With every single one he felt himself getting more and more addicted. After their afternoon spent shopping, they sat together on a bench, gazing out at the azure blue sea. He drank coffee, and Chelle ate a caramel apple, giggling as she explained that she was able to eat it guilt-free because the apple had fiber and the nuts had protein. He smiled. God, she was so cute. Suddenly she gasped and almost choked on her 'nutritious' treat. Oh my gosh, what time is it? She looked at her watch, alarmed. Your flight isOh God! We need to head back! If we hurry, you can make it! Chelle never ceased to amaze him. He just couldnt get over how she was always worried about other people! He knew that she was having fun, enjoying herself - but her first concern was

getting him to his flight on time. It was a stark contrast to the women he usually dated. Well...let's be honest, he thought 'dated' is strong term. 'Spent time with' would be more accurate. Those women would never have worried about him making a flight. Not in a million years! If they had thought about it at all, it only would have been in the context of trying to figure out how they could make him miss his flight. He had had girls hide his keys, hide his phone, and employ a number of other sneaky tactics if they knew he had to leave and they didnt want him to go. But not Chelle. She always put others first, even someone she hadnt seen in over a decade. What the hell had douchebag David been thinking to throw that kind of love away? David Price literally might be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Are you coming? Chelle asked anxiously. She was already off the bench and a few feet away from him, headed back in the direction they had come, toward the place where they would catch the cable car that would take them back up to Powell St. No, he answered simply. No, youre not coming? She stopped, a look of confusion clouding her face. He shook his head. She waited, then tilted her head continuing to explain, Riley if we dont leave now youll miss your flight. I canceled it. You canceled your flight? Yes. When? While you were talking to that elderly couple, when we were watching the seals sunbathe. Why? Because, the last thing I want to do is get on a plane that takes me away from you. Her eyes widened. Me? You. Oh. A flush crept up her cheeks and she slowly walked back to the bench where he had remained seated and sat back down next to him. She was completely silent and he suddenly realized that she may not want his company. He wasn't, after all, exactly an invited guest. He didnt know what had possessed him to say what he did. He should have just said that he wanted to do more sightseeing, or that he was extending his vacation. Something neutral. Or he could have made something up! He could have said that Jason had asked him to stay...which he had, as a

matter of fact. But, no. He had to go and say that he didn't want to leave her. The tension between them was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. He turned towards her, saying awkwardly, Look...I dont have to stay. I could She put her hand on his thigh, he stopped talking. She turned and smiled at him, then leaned over and pressed her lips to his. For a moment, he wondered if he imagined that part, though, because in a blink of an eye she was up and off the bench again. I want to go on the Ferris wheel! she said brightly. The Ferris wheel? He repeated, still in shock from the indescribable feeling of her soft full lips pressed against his, no matter how short the duration of the kiss. Yep, she grinned, and then she was off, headed down to the Ferris wheel. Unable to come up with a better plan, he shrugged and followed her. --- ~ --Chelle still couldnt believe that she had kissed him. She...Rachelle Thomas...had kissed Riley Sloan on the mouth. In broad daylight, in front of God and everybody. Well 'kiss' might be overselling it. But she had given him a peck on the lips. She wished that instead of half-assing it, she would have had the courage to woman up and really go for it! At least then she would have known for sure if there was going to be another kiss at some point. In fairness to her, she hadnt ended the kiss so abruptly solely because she was a big chicken. The other contributing factor had to do with the fact that, the minute she came into contact with him a sweet shock of bliss washed over her entire body like a wave crashing over her being. It was intense. Very intense. Nevertheless, she was still kicking herself for retreating. If she hadnt done that...if she had really kissed him...then the ball would have been in his court. He would have either had to kiss her back, or end the kiss. It would have been clear-cut, one way or another. Although the second option would have been disappointing (in the extreme) it would have at least been addressed. At this point in the program, the entire incident was just being completely ignored. By both of them. He hadnt mentioned it, and they both seemed to be acting normally. Acting being the appropriate term, for her at least, because that was definitely what she knew she was doing. After that all too brief smooch, all she could think about was if their lips would ever touch

again. It was consuming her thoughts. As soon as they got off the Ferris wheel Riley suggested they go take one of those old-timey photos where you dress up. Ooookaay, Chelle thought, so maybe he was not having the same issues getting over her sad excuse for a kiss as she was. Chelle agreed to the idea and they found a photo shop that did Wild West pictures. Chelle dressed up like a saloon girl and Riley was in chaps and a cowboy hat, holding a rifle. Hmmmm....Chelle thought. He looks good. The photographer posed them so that Riley was seated on a bar stool and Chelles heelbooted foot was resting on Rileys firm leg. As soon as the photographer directed Chelle to place her foot on him, she felt his hand wrap possessively around her calf. Her dress was pulled up to reveal a garter that she had placed mid-thigh. Riley held a rifle in one hand, the base of which rested against his opposite leg. As they waited while the photographer placed props around them and the lighting was set up, Chelle felt Rileys strong fingers begin moving slightly, massaging her skin. She didnt know if he was purposely trying to torture her or if he was just doing what felt natural to him...but either way, it felt amazing. Who knew that a person could have so many nerves in their calf? Chelle had never before thought of her lower leg as an erogenous zone, but now she knew that it definitely was. The gentle movements of Riley's fingers felt so good, in fact, that she was having a hard time holding still. You look good in that dress, Riley said in a deep, low voice that rumbled from his chest. Just those few well-chosen words, combined with the pressure of his fingers caressing her leg, were almost too much for Chelle to handle. Her body trembled and she found herself having a hard time standing with only one leg to support her. Feeling that the moment was getting a little too intense, she thought it was probably a good idea to lighten the mood. She teased, Youre not so bad yourself, cowboy. She looked down at him, forcing herself to smile brightly and she felt his grip tighten around her calf, causing a lightning bolt of pleasure to run all the way up her leg to her core. She heard a gasp escape from her mouth. The photographer stepped behind the camera and told them to look up. Chelle did, and the photographer counted down three, two, one before snapping the pic. She then took several more before smiling and letting them to go change out of their western gear. The dressing rooms were on opposite sides of the studio, so - without sparing a glance in Rileys direction - Chelle headed to her side to change out of her dress and try to get a handle on her out of control hormones.

She had never really considered herself a sexually-charged person. Sure, she enjoyed sex. She thought it was nice when it happened. But, by the same token, she had gone long stretches without it and never even missed it. And she had never once before been in danger of having an orgasm from a simple touch of her leg! She knew, now more than ever, that the feelings she had for Riley were beyond dangerous. It would be smart for her to keep her distance, both emotionally and physically. That might be difficult, though, considering the fact that he was staying one more night (at least!) because he hadnt wanted to leave her. SWOON! As she walked out of the dressing room, Riley was leaning against the doorway of the small hallway waiting for her. We should probably head back, the last cable car leaves in about forty-five minutes. Sounds good, let me just get the picture. Already got it. Riley held up a bag that Chelle had not noticed him carrying. Oh, She said trying to hide her surprise at the fact that he had actually taken care of getting the photo. That was yet another thing that Chelle had never experienced. First of all, David would have never - not in a million years! - suggested getting the photo taken. And even if he did finally agree to do it, he would never have taken it upon himself to pick out the picture and purchase it. He had never even made dinner reservations for her. In fact, now that she thought about it, any time they did anything - from simply going to a movie, to going out for dinner, or all the way up to a week-end getaway - Chelle was the one to plan it. It was always left to her to find out the show times, pick out the movie, choose the restaurant, make the reservations, find the hotel, etc. David had never done any of that. Now, after spending less than twenty-four hours with Riley, Chelle promised herself that she would never settle for less than the bar he had unintentionally set. All day, he had opened doors for her and placed his hand on her lower back to guide her through crowds. He had even bought her a zip-up hoodie when he thought she was cold. In reality, it had not been the cold that was making her shudder, it was him. Every time she came into contact with him, no matter how brief or innocent that contact was, her body responded. She knew that kind of chemistry was not easy to find, but now she also knew that she would rather be alone than in a relationship which didnt generate that kind of heat.

Chapter Eight
Riley paid the delivery man and brought the bags of Chinese take-out to the kitchen table. So this is the best Chinese take-out in the city, huh? Chelle sat the plates and forks on the table. That was what Katie claimed, she said, stepping back into the kitchen to retrieve a bottle of wine, So the first night I got here I tried it, and after one bite I was convinced. Riley winked. That would explain all of the San Tung containers I cleaned up from this place last night. Yeah, Chelle blushed and smiled as she slid into the chair opposite Riley, Im a stress eater, what can I say. Thinking that this was as good an opening as any, Riley decided to go ahead and address the elephant in the room, So the whole thing with David came as shock? After a few moments of silence, she said, Yes and no. When he first told me, I admit I was completely blindsided by it. I think part of that had to do with his timing, though. I was so focused on Katie and Jasons wedding. And what about the no? Riley figured he might as well go all in. In for a buck, in for a quarter. The what? You said yes and no. What about the no? Oh, well, I just meant that after I had some time to think about it, about our relationship I mean, it doesnt shock me very much that he cheated. Looking back now, I guess all the signs were there. The late night meetings, the weekend business trips, the plans that he canceled at the last minute because 'something came up at work.' So clich. That's one of the worst parts. He made me feel trite. I should have known something was up. I should have questioned him. But, what can I say? I trusted him. The thought never even crossed my mind that he would be cheating on me. Hes an idiot, Riley grumbled, all the while stuffing his face with chow mein. Chelle smiled, You definitely wont get an argument from me about that. And to tell you the truth, Im not even mad he doesn't want to be with me. Really, I dont want to be with someone who doesnt want to be with me. I just dont like all the lying and sneaking around. I mean, seriously? Why not just leave me if Kayla was the one he wanted to be with? Why wait until shes pregnant to walk away? I guess I should just be happy he didnt take me on Jerry Springer to break the news... She shrugged and scooped out more fried rice onto her plate. Enough of my drama, what about you? Do you have anyone serious in your life? She looked

down at her food as she poured soy sauce over her rice. Im not in a relationship. Her gaze still downward, she continued pouring soy sauce over the rest of her plate, What's the longest relationship youve had? A couple of years. Her eyes shot up to meet his, abandoning her pretense of nonchalance, Really! Thats a long time. Were you engaged or anything? Nope. Actually, that was part of the reason we broke up. She wanted to move things along and I was more than happy to keep them exactly where they were. Was it just that she wasnt the right one? Do you ever want to get married? If anyone else, at any other time, had asked Riley that question the answer would have come easily - NO. But right now, sitting across from Chelle, looking into her big doe eyes...he didnt know what he felt about wanting to get married. But, regardless of his feelings, the fact that he wouldnt get married hadnt changed. That fact remained immutable. Whether I want to or not doesnt matter. Im not ever getting married. Chelle nodded, seeming to understand, Because of what you saw happen with your Mom and Dad. No. He hadnt thought his response had come out sounding harsh, but the hurt expression on Chelles face told him it had. He tried to soften his tone. Im just not that 'forever' guy. Im not cut out for marriage. Really? Why not? He didnt answer. He wasnt trying to give her the silent treatment or anything. He just didnt know what to say. Is it because you cant imagine being with only one person for the rest of your life? No, he answered honestly. Then what is it? If its not about your parents and its not that you dont think you could be happy with just one person, then what is it? Again, he didnt answer. After waiting several minutes for him to respond she finally just smiled and said, Well, I for one think you would make a great husband. He didnt know how she always did that. How she always knew the real reasons behind his behavior. It was like she had a direct line to his soul. It was unnerving. And an amazing dad, she added before stuffing her face full of rice. She chewed, her cheeks puffed out like a squirrel who was storing nuts for the winter. He felt a smile spread across his face. Chelle Thomas was equally as adorable as she was sexy.

--- ~ --Chelle laid in bed and mentally kicked herself. Why had she gone down that line of questioning with him? Oh right, because she had been feeling guilty about their momentary lip-lock and was scared that she may have inadvertently been a participant in cheating. She was not the other woman kind of a girl. She liked having a clear conscience and being able to sleep at night (current evidence of both to the contrary!). She should have just stopped there. As soon as he said he wasnt in a relationship, she should have zipped it. But, no. She had to add a follow-up question. And. for the life of her, she could never guess what had prompted her to say that he would make a good husband...and dad. Holy Flipping Moly! He had just said in no uncertain terms that he didnt want to get married. And she had no idea what his feelings were about becoming a father, but she was pretty sure he didnt need (or want!) her opinion on the matter. Tossing and turning, she looked over at the clock beside the bed and saw that it was just past one. She had been laying sleeplessly in bed for over two hours and was starting to think that she may not be getting to sleep anytime soon, either. Earlier, when neither of them could possibly eat another bite, they had decided to watch some TV. As the television program wore on, blue light flickering into the darkened room, Riley began to nod off. Chelle had thought that he must be exhausted, not having gotten any sleep at all the night before. So, instead of waiting for him to call it a night, she lied and said that she was worn out from their day of sightseeing and wanted to hit the sheets. Although he had tried to hide it, she could tell he was relieved at the prospect of being able to get some sleep. He asked if it would be okay if he just took a quick shower first, since he hadnt had one that morning. For a moment, she hadnt been able to respond. The mental image that his request inspired left her temporarily mute. Even after a full minute, she could only squeak out a high-pitched, Yes. While he was busy in the shower, she had busied herself with both making up a bed for him on the couch and banishing thoughts of his wet, naked body from her mind. The latter was significantly more challenging than the former!

She had tried to insist on sleeping on the couch herself, since she was barely 54 and he was well over 6 feet tall, but he scowled and said that wasnt up for discussion. SWOON! Chivalry wasn't dead. When he had finished showering, they had said an awkward goodnight and she had thanked him again for the day. Then, just as the tension between them began to ratchet up in a serious way, she had practically sprinted into the bedroom. Holy Roly Poly Moly! Riley, freshly showered and wearing nothing but baggy sweats, was more temptation than any woman should ever be faced with! Well...more than any woman should ever be faced with and be expected not to give in to, at any rate, she grimaced. Now, lying restlessly in her bed, she started counting sheep like she had when she was a little girl. She sighed. It didnt work any better now than it had then. Ugh! She couldnt even go watch TV because it was out in the room that was currently being occupied by one half-naked Riley Sloan. At least...she assumed that he was still only half-naked. Hmm...interesting. Was there a plausible scenario that might result in him being entirely naked right now? The possibility was... STOP! Chelle chided herself sternly. Seriously, girl, she thought to herself, get it together! There is more to life than picturing Riley Sloan naked! However, when pressed to think of what that 'more' might consist of, she found herself drawing a blank. She did have a book that she had been reading but, it was a romance novel. Last thing she needed, especially if she was trying get off the kick she seemed to be on of picturing Riley naked. And...other stuff. Like the things she would DO to him if she walked in and found him naked...STOP! Yeah. She clearly did not need to have her mind filled with the images the book inspired. She was obviously having a hard enough time keeping her mind out of the gutter without the additional literary inspiration. So, after considering all of the non-narcotic sleep inducing techniques at her disposal, she had finally settled on counting backwards from one thousand. At around the six hundred mark, she had finally begun to drift off when she was startled awake by the sound of someone crying out. It was Riley. Her heart began to race as she felt adrenaline flood her veins. She flew out of bed and raced into the living room, heart pounding in anticipation of what terrible scene might await her when she got there.

What she saw was Riley, alone on the couch, seemingly engaged in a battle with his blanket. He thrashed back and forth for a few seconds and then cried out again. She saw the anguish on his face and her heart broke in two. She stood, watching him suffer, torn as to what action she should take next. She knew that there were conflicting theories when it came to whether or not you should wake someone who was having a nightmare. She briefly battled within herself, trying to decide which way was right, trying to remember what each study had said, trying to come to a decision about what the most medically responsible decision would be in this instance. Then Riley cried out once more, the sound of his anguish filling the air, and Chelle decided she didnt care what the studies said. She could not sit idly by while he was being tortured - even if he wasnt consciously aware of what was going on. She knelt beside the couch. Riley, she said softly, attempting to sound as calming as possible. It didnt have any effect, though, and he continued his thrashing. Riley, she said in a louder, stronger tone. Still no response. His night terror seemed to be getting worse. His movements were more erratic and his face contorted even more painfully. She felt a tear fall from her eye. She hated seeing him this way. She felt as if her heart were being torn in two. Before she realized what she was doing, she reached out and touched his chest. When she again uttered his name, the tortured quality of her voice matched that of his own cries. Suddenly, his hand clamped down over hers, grabbing it tightly and holding it against his warm skin. His eyes flew open, looking beyond her with a wild, frenetic gaze. The pressure he exerted in squeezing her hand to himself nearly crossed the threshold into pain. Riley, she said urgently, Its me. Its Chelle. Wake up. Chelle could feel his heart pounding furiously beneath her palm. Her heart ached for him. The powerful need she felt to help him was matched only by her overwhelming sense of powerlessness to do so. She didn't know what to do. Ideas for various courses of action ping-ponged around inside her brain until she felt that her mind was swimming with conflicting courses of action and all that she could do was tread water. She felt that she must do something, but by the same token, she definitely did not want to make the situation worse! She just wanted him to know she was here if he needed her. The desire to take away any pain or fear he felt flooded her entire body. Instinctively she moved onto the couch. She laid down beside him, her body pressed tightly

against his, her head resting against his chest. The instant she laid her head on his chest, his body began to relax. He slumped back down, his back lying flat against the pillows, his breath shallow and rapid. She stayed, lying beside him, stroking his hair gently. After a few moments his arm wrapped possessively around her, his hand landing on her hip. She froze, waiting for him to say something, to address what was happening. When he didnt speak, she carefully peaked up at him, trying as best she could not to move anything except her eyes. She couldnt see much from her awkward position, but she could tell that Rileys eyes were closed. His mouth was slightly open and she had to stop herself from reaching up and pressing her lips to his. The kiss they had shared down on the wharf had only made her want more. Immediately she admonished herself for having those thoughts. The very last thing Riley needed was to have her drooling all over him. She just needed to be his friend. Too bad it couldnt be friends with benefits, she thought. As she laid still, trying to calm down enough to go to sleep, she was consumed by the feeling of rightness that being held in Rileys arms inspired in her. She felt like a puzzle piece that had finally been fitted down into place with its perfect match with a satisfying snap. She had never before spent the night in a mans arms. Obviously, she had slept beside David, but beside was the operative word there. David liked his space. He had been very clear on setting boundaries. The perimeters of her side of the bed and his were very clearly drawn. He had always claimed that he felt claustrophobic if she even accidentally rolled onto his side in her sleep. Chelle remembered, even as a little girl, watching movies where a man and woman would fall asleep or wake up in each others arms. She had always thought it looked so romantic. It had looked like it felt so cozy, so warm, so loving, so comfortable, sosafe. She allowed herself to imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if this was her reality. If she and Riley were together and she could fall asleep in his arms each night. She felt the air leave her lungs in a rush. No. She couldn't even allow her mind to entertain that fantasy. It was too much even to wish for, and she was a realist. She knew that was never going to happen. Riley could wake up any minute and she would be headed back to her own room, like a naughty kid sent to bed without supper. It was fine to enjoy the physical contact with Riley while it lasted, but starting to fantasize about it possibly continuing was a dangerous and STUPID road to go down. She wouldn't allow it. No, she determined, just enjoy what you get while it lasts. Since she couldnt change the past and certainly could not foresee the future, she figured the best thing she could do was to just live in the present...which wasn't actually all bad, come to think of

it, because the present felt very, very good. --- ~ --Riley felt something different, something off, as he drifted up from sleep. Even before he opened his eyes, he could sense that there was an important shift in his circumstances, something that he should be aware of. As he came fully awake, it did not take long to discover the source of this sensation. It was Chelle, draped across him, sound asleep. Whoa. His arm cradled her to him and his hand rested on her hip. Without consciously planning to do so he tightened his grip on her. She made a small noise and snuggled in tighter to him. Again...whoa. Was this a dream, he wondered as he took in his surroundings. He was on the couch where he had gone to sleep the night before and it was still dark outside. No clues there as to whether this was reality or dreamland. It felt real, though. She felt real. The large erection he was sporting certainly felt real. But why was she out here and not in her room? Had she gotten scared in the middle of the night? Had she sleep walked? So many questions flooded his mind that it was difficult to think about them one by one. Why hadnt she woken him? Had she tried? How could he possibly sleep through someone lying down with him? He had been a light sleeper his entire life and his military experience had only cemented that trait even further. He had been trained to wake at even the slightest sound or movement. Looking down at her sweet face resting against his shoulder, Riley knew that regardless of the circumstance which had brought her there, this was exactly where Chelle belonged. He didnt know how long he had been asleep with her there, but he knew he wasnt going to waste another second sleeping when he could be spending that time reveling in the pure, sweet sensation of her body lying on top of his. At that very moment Chelle raised her head slightly, opened her beautiful brown eyes sluggishly, and blinked several times. Hi there, Sleeping Beauty, Riley smiled. She blinked again. A look of confusion played across her face but was almost instantly replaced with a more serious look of concern.

Riley, She intoned gravely as she sat up on her elbow, Are you okay? Of course, you barely weigh anything. He pulled her closer to him. He didnt know why he did, it just felt so good to have her near. Oh, no, she blushed, I meant because of the dreamI mean nightmare, or uh...terror or whatever. His chest constricted as a feeling of dread filled him. Riley quickly moved from under her and sat on the edge of the couch running his hands through his hair, I had aI didnt even know I whenwhat did I Chelle sat up beside him and rested her hand on his arm, No, nothing, I mean you justI heard you yell so I came out to make sure you were okay. You wereI mean you looked like you were having a bad dream so I called your name and you didnt hear me, so I just laid beside you. He didnt know what to say. He had been having those dreams for a couple of months now. It was part of the reason he knew it was time to get out. It was like his subconscious' way of telling him it was time. But no one knew about them outside of his unit. He hadnt gone and talked to the shrink that had been suggested, and now he was wishing he would have. The last thing he wanted was to seem weak in front of Chelle. A silent curse crossed his lips. Chelle started to get up, a blush creeping up her cheeks as she stammered, Sorry, I shouldnt have stayed, I just wanted to be here, you know if you needed me and I just fell asleep and Without thinking about it he reached out and grabbed her hand, I liked waking up with you in my arms. I just, I dont really know what to say. You dont have to say anything. Ill let you get back to bed. She tried to move away but he didnt let go of her hand. Chelle, He looked up at her, He knew he shouldnt ask her to stay but he couldnt help himself. Dont go. Without hesitation she nodded and he laid down on his side. She sat down and slowly lowered her body, curling herself into him as he draped his arm around her. No questions, no strange looks, no expectations. She just laid silently beside him. He shouldnt be surprised. It was Chelle. She had always just got him. Just accepted him for who he was. Now more than ever he wished that he was the type of guy that was cutout for the house, kids, and wife. That would be a dream come true, actually. If he were that kind of guy, he would do anything in his power to convince Chelle to be his. He would hold her and never let her go. Still, it was useless to think that way. He knew that was not the case and it never would be.

When it came down to it, he would have to let her go. But...not now. Not tonight. Tonight he could hold her. He loved the way her tiny frame felt pressed tightly against him. She moved, snuggling closer to him and he knew he would need to devote all of his energy to thinking about anything other than the way her ass felt pressed snugly against his groin if he was going to keep his body under control. His attempts to think of baseball stats or saying the alphabet backwards were thwarted when a lock of Chelles hair tickled his nose. Gently, he brushed her hair back from her face and the smell of coconut and cinnamon assaulted his senses. The fine strands felt silky soft to the touch, so smooth. He ran his fingers through her dark lustrous locks, his fingers grazing her scalp as he smoothed her hair down and tucked her even closer to him. She made a sound that Riley had only ever heard women make while they were making love. His fingers itched to touch her again just so he could hear that sweet sound. She moved against him as if searching out connection and his body responded to her curves aligned against him. He didnt want her to feel him growing harder and think that this was something it wasnt so he moved slightly back. Asking her to stay with him was not to fulfill something physical. Their connection had always been an emotional one and tonight he felt like he needed her beside him. He knew in his mind and heart that her nestled beside him had nothing to do with sex. It just seemed that the area below his belt decided that there was definitely more than emotional fulfillment that needed to come out of this sleeping arrangement. Normally the thought of spending a night destined to put him in the blue ball hall of fame, would not be his idea of a good time...but as far as he was concerned, this was one of the best nights of his life. He knew that, no matter how long he lived, all he would have to do was close his eyes and he would be able to remember it, clear as a bell the way she felt, the way she sounded, and the way she smelled of coconut and cinnamon.

Chapter Nine
Chelle reached her hands over her head and stretched her legs out straight. She arched her back, enjoying the feeling of slowly coming awake as she stretched and unkinked her muscles. Her feet hit something solid, then, and she opened her eyes only to realize that she was on the couch. Alone. The memory of the night before came flooding back to her mind. Coming out to check on Riley, lying down beside him. And the very best part - him asking her to stay with him. Warmth at the sweet memory welled inside her and she felt a smile spread across her face. She still couldnt quite get over how much of an impact those two words he uttered to her in the middle of the night had had on her. Dont go. His voice had been filled with equal parts plea and command. When she laid down beside him, she thought for a moment that something might happen between them. That his invitation had implied more than just sleep was on the agenda. She had even scooted closer to him, trying to subtly move things in a more intimate direction. But, to her extreme and utter disappointment, he must have thought that she needed more room because he had adjusted so that she had more space. That had been a bummer, but she hadnt let it dampen her enjoyment of the experience. She had spent half the night in Rileys arms. Before she had drifted off to sleep, she had felt him run his fingers through her hair before pulling her closer to him. The sensation was so sweet, so intense, that she had almost cried. With that one small gesture, Riley had made her feel like the most special girl in the world. Like she was somehow precious to him. She sat up just as she heard the shower turn off. Hmm, the vision of Riley in the shower, naked and dripping wet...not a bad way to start a girls day, she decided. Her phone buzzed, interrupting her mental peep show. Picking it up she saw it was her brother Eddie calling. She swiped her phone screen to pick up the call and said, Hey, how is Emily feeling? Better. Her fever broke. Now shes just dealing with itching like crazy. How are you doing? Im okay. She clamped her mouth shut before she could say another word. It occurred to her that she didnt know if he knew that Riley was there. Suddenly, she felt like a teenager entertaining a boy when her parents werent home.

Not that she had ever done that or anything! She had been the quintessential good girl. But, you know. She assumed this is what that would feel like. Jason told me Riley stopped by to check on you. Eddies tone was accusatory. Yep, he did. Chelle planned to keep her answers short and sweet. She wasnt about to reveal anything that could get misconstrued in Eddies over-protective-big-brother mind. Is he still there? He asked, his voice even more intensely suffused with accusation. Yep, he is. She was not going to change her strategy mid-stream. She was staying the course. She knew if he got her talking she would end up saying too much, she always did. Where is he sleeping? Eddies voice sounded dangerously close to murderous. What Chelle wanted to say was NONE OF YOUR DAMN BUSINESS - but she decided it was not a good idea to poke the bear, so she went with, On the couch. She tried to infuse her voice with a righteous indignation that she did not currently feel. She had no idea if she succeeded. But she did not have long to ponder it because Riley chose that exact moment to appear looking like six feet four inches of man-candy. Holy mother of pearl! He was dripping with sex appeal. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, clean shaven, and hair still wet from the shower. She could practically smell the freshly applied cologne, although he was far enough away that she knew it must be in her head. Good thing she was already sitting because she wasnt sure her legs would have supported her if she had been standing and suddenly dropping her ass into a chair upon first sight of him probably wasn't the impression she wanted to put out. Chelle? Chelle, are you still there? She heard her brothers raised voice on the other end of the line. Whaoh yeah...what did you say? She felt as though she had been hit by a truck (a sexy truck!) and was having a hard time focusing. I asked when youre planning on coming home, Eddies frustration with the fact that he couldnt order her to come home right this minute was painfully obvious. Oh, well, I uh...I dont have to be back to work for a few more days. And I can always try to get another week covered. So...yeah. I'm really not sure. To be honest, at this point, I'm just taking it a day at a time. See? That was why she had initially implemented the short and sweet plan. Too bad Riley walked in and short-circuited her brain so that she couldn't focus on maintaining it. Damn Riley, and his distracting sexiness! Riley motioned to her, asking if she was hungry, and she nodded. She sighed inwardly. She could get used to Riley Sloan cooking her breakfast...

Wait, no! No! She absolutely would not let herself get used to Riley cooking breakfast! That would be a sure-fire recipe for heartache. But, after spending less than two days with Riley, things that she would have settled for before were now deal-breakers. Riley was setting a pretty high bar for other men to live up to, whether he was aware of it or not. So, how long is Riley planning on staying? I thought he was supposed to fly home a couple of nights ago. Im not sure, we havent talked about it. You havent talked about it? Eddie did not sound convinced. In fact, he sounded downright suspicious. Nope. Good, she thought. Back up on the short and sweet horse. If youre doing fine, then why is he still there, Chelle? Sightseeing. She answered honestly. Tell Riley to call me, Eddie barked, Ive gotta go put calamine lotion on Emily. With that, he disconnected the call. Chelle shook her head as she placed her phone back in her purse. She loved her brother to death. She really did. He had done his best to step up after Emilys mom, Lacey, had bounced. Sometimes though, she wished he would see her less like his little sister and more like his equal. She knew he thought that he was helping by being so protective of her, but she was a grown woman! I mean, hell, she thought to herself - if David hadn't turned out to be such a weasel, I would have been a married woman in a few weeks! Whoa. That thought made her feel slightly panicky. Would she really have been happy being married to David? Not the lying-cheater he turned out to be, that answer was obvious. But what about the David she had thought she was marrying? And...wasn't it kind of telling that this was the first time that she had ever thought to ask herself that question? And the answer was...No. She knew now, beyond a shadow of a doubt she would not have been happy. Again...whoa. She sat back on the couch and pulled her knees up, hugging them against her chest. Thoughts and questions began flooding her mind. Why had she said yes when David had proposed? Had she really thought he would make a good husband?

Why did she never questioned him about the odd hours he had been keeping? Why had she stayed with him when he broke so many promises to her? What the hell could she possibly have been thinking? She knew that as a teen she had loved David. But as an adult, had she really seen him for who he was...and loved that man? Well, at least that last question was easy enough to answer. No, she had most definitely not seen David for who he was. Or maybe she had seen him, on some level, deep down and had subconsciously chosen to ignore it. Because the truth was, after filtering out the initial shock, anger and embarrassment - she had to admit it. She knew that his behavior, although reprehensible, was actually pretty in-line with who he was. At first she didnt think she could admit that to herself. Not because it would be heartbreaking or anything like that. It was justwhat kind of a person did that make her, since she had been his fianc? An overwhelming wave of anxiety crashed over her. It was becoming difficult to breath. It felt almost as though an elephant were sitting on her chest. Sitting up straight, she put her feet back down on the floor and tried to take deep breaths to calm herself. Riley came around the corner from the kitchen at that moment, and the second he saw her, he rushed to her side. He told her to put her head between her legs and breathe slowly in through her nose and out through her mouth. His voice was low and soothing and she tried to latch onto it as something she could anchor herself to. She did her best to follow the instructions he was delivering in his ultra-soothing tone, trying desperately to get herself calmed down. She really did not want Riley to see her like this. Her arms felt heavy as they dangled down beside her, her shoulders resting on her knees. Rileys large hand was now making slow circles over her back. Mmmmm....it felt good. It made her forget all of the questions that had nearly caused her to have a panic attack. All of those concerns melted under Riley's comforting touch. He leaned down closer to her. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, he reminded her. She was actually feeling much better. In fact, she was breathing just fine now. But...and this was the big BUT...she knew that as soon as she sat up, he would remove his hand, and she wanted to enjoy that lovely sensation just a little longer. When youre ready, I made pancakes. His voice reminded her of what he used to sound like as a teen when he would be over visiting Eddie and they would find ice cream in the freezer or a

movie they liked came on. It was a light tone, less weighed down by whatever difficulty he might have been facing. Well, she thought, it looks like breakfast calls. Sitting up, she immediately felt the loss of his hand leaving her back. Although she was disappointed, she tried to put on a bright smile as she said, Great, Im starved. She got off the couch and he stopped her, much like he had the night before, by grabbing her wrist, Hey, are you alright? She looked down at him and realized that physically she might be fine, but emotionally...well, she was treading in very dangerous territory. Yep, Im feeling better. I just got a little, I dont know, light-headed. Yeah, you looked like you were about to pass out. He rubbed his thumb along her wrist and it sent tingles throughout her body. They stared at each other, neither one moving for several long moments. A current of electricity ran between them. Finally realizing that this would not help her stay out of dangerous emotional territory, she pulled her hand away and headed toward the kitchen. Even though that was the very last thing in the world she wanted to do.

Chapter Ten
So was that Eddie on the phone? He asked as he joined her, grabbing the plate of pancakes and syrup. Yep, how could you tell? She asked bringing the butter and coffee to the table. When you talk to him you sound just like you did when we were kids. He smiled while slathering his pancakes with butter. Really? Hows that? She took a sip of coffee and, as it hit her mouth, she had to stifle a groan. It tasted like heaven. He smirked. Kind of patronizing, but with a lot of love tossed in. I sound patronizing? she asked, shocked by the description. She had never thought of herself as a patronizing person. Well, yeah. Maybe 'patronizing' is a bit of a strong word. Its more like you sound like you are humoring him, but out of love. That sounds a lot like patronizing to me, Chelle said as she took a big bite of pancake. Sorry, I didnt mean anything by it. Riley said, his tone conveying his belief that he had upset her. You dont have to apologize, you didnt say anything wrong, Chelle assured him. She was just trying to assess if that was, in fact, how she behaved. A little self-reflection, if you will. Plus, I asked you what I sounded like, and you know what Grandpa J always says. Dont ask the question If you dont want the answer, they both finished in unison. How is the Colonel? Riley asked, the affection he obviously felt for him shining through. Good, Chelle was happy to report, Hes slowing down a little, but what can you expect? Hes about to be ninety. His age has done nothing to dull his sharpness, though. Hes just as feisty as ever. Man, Ive missed the Colonel, Riley said with a nostalgic grin, Im really looking forward to catching up with him. I didnt realize you two were close, Chelle said. Yeah, he moved to town right after we lost Mom, and I waswell you probably remember. I was mad at the world, kept getting into trouble. Then, the night I got taken in for the B&E at the grocery store, the Colonel happened to be taking his nightly stroll and saw them hauling me into the police station. He came in and got them to release me to him and drop the charges. I still dont know how he

did it. On the walk back to my house we had a come to Jesus meeting about the reality of what my life would be if I continued heading down the destructive path I was on. He told me he had lost both of his parents to measles when he was sixteen and, due to the sudden loss, he went a little crazy and started acting out. Then he told me that the only one who could ruin my life was me, and I was also the only one who could make something productive out of myself. I called him the next day and he drove me to the recruitment office. I had just turned eighteen, which was part of the reason why the Colonel was so concerned. I was of legal age and my record could have been ruined. I left the day after graduation, which was a few weeks later, and I really havent had the chance to thank him for taking the time to help me pull my head out of my ass. You know he has a Facebook page right? Chelle offered, knowing that he would still want to thank him face to face, but also thinking he might like to keep in touch with him when he moved to Louisiana. Riley eyes widened in shock and he laughed a little, Youre kidding me. Seriously? Seriously, Chelle smiled, and he has more friends than I do. Wow, well I guess Ill have to send him a friend request. You should, I think he would love that, Chelle said. But what she wanted to say was, Great, and hey - why dont you send me one, too? That way I can torture myself with your updates while you're meeting ten thousand available women in the bar you own in New Orleans. But...probably good that she showed restraint. She looked down at her plate and realized she had cut her pancake into pizza slices. She smiled, realizing that she hadnt done that since she was a kid. I almost sent you a friend request. Rileys voice sounded a little more serious, and Chelle's eyes darted up meet his. Yep, he looked serious, alright. Why didnt you? she asked somewhat hesitantly. If she was completely honest, she wasnt sure she wanted to know the answer. You were engaged, I didnt want to overstep. I wasnt sure how David would feel about it. Chelle scrunched her brows, David wouldnt have cared. He never got jealous over stuff like that. Actually, he never got jealous about anything...but I guess now we know why. So much of Davids behavior made sense in light of everything that she now knew about his extra-curricular activities. Including (but not limited to!) the fact that they hadnt slept together in over six months. Holy Flipping Moly! It really had been over six months. What in the name of frickety frack had she been thinking during that time? She searched her memory. She vaguely remembered attributing it to him being tired, working long hours, the stress of

the wedding...she shook her head. It made her blood run cold to think about it now, but she mainly remembered...well, frankly...not giving it a second thought. Well, I didnt know that. The last thing I would want to do is to put you in an awkward position by having to decline my friend request. He smiled and she knew he was teasing her, but she still wanted to make sure that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that would never happen. Selfdeprecating jokes, after all, do often have their roots in real insecurities. Riley, she said solemnly, putting down her fork, It doesnt matter who I am with - I could be married with five kids - and I will still accept your friend request. Riley's eyes grew a little darker and his expression grew grim, but before she had a chance to follow up by asking him what was wrong, what she had said to upset him, he abruptly changed course. Do you have plans for today? he asked, sounding like he had something in mind. Um, Riley, in case you hadnt noticed...before you got here, I hadnt left this apartment. Not once. My plans for this little mini-vaca consisted of lying in bed - or possibly on the couch for a little variety - and eating my feelings. Well - as truly wonderful as that sounds - I think I may have something better in mind. His countenance brightened with mischievous glee as his eyes danced with enthusiasm. What she wanted to tell him was anything he had in mind would be amazing to her. They could sit and do nothing at all and she would be on cloud nine, if only he was beside her. But she didnt think that was really an appropriate thing to say, so she settled for, Im game! Let me just go take a quick shower. She stood and picked up his now-empty plate to carry with hers to the sink. After rinsing them, she was overwhelmed with the sensation that Riley had been watching her the entire time. She lifted her head and smiled as she was able to confirm that her suspicions had, indeed, been correct. Oh Lord! Yep. Only...he wasnt just watching her. It felt like he was committing her every move to memory. He studied her with an intensity that caused her body to respond with a 'HELLO! All Systems Go!' sensation. Chelle stared, unable to tear her gaze from him. It was as if his gaze alone had pulled her under some kind of magic spell. Ah, yes, she thought. The classic man-woman magic spell. The 'lust trance.' Well, if that was a thing, she could consider herself under it! You are so beautiful, he rasped, his voice raw, yet filled with reverence. Her cheeks became warm and she was sure that they were probably turning bright red. She was also pretty sure he was just being nice. She needed to remind herself not to read too

much into it. Why did his simple compliment affect her so much? She wasnt some love-sick teenage girl! A small voice in the back of her head chimed in, No, youre a love-sick grown-up girl. Seriously. Why did that little voice always have to be spot on?! He was still staring at her and she felt the need to fill the electrified silence. Thank you...um...so are youI mean not beautifulyoure uhhandsome. I mean I guess youre beautiful too but, oh whatever, you know what I mean. I just, wellyou know...youre cute. CUTE. Had she seriously just called RILEY SLOAN cute?! He was a lot of things. Sexy. Gorgeous. Built. Hot. Nope, scratch that - smokin hot! But cuteGood God in Heaven and All That Is Holy Moly...why in the world had she just said that?! She had just started talking (read: stammering) and CUTE came tumbling out. Gah! Chelle hated that she rambled when she was nervous. Shed always wished that like Samantha on Sex and the City (one of her favorite TV shows), she could be cool and sophisticated. But, unfortunately, those were two traits that she did not come by naturally. Most of the time it didnt bother her. There were, after all, surely bigger hurdles given to people in life that they had to overcome. But, good lord...in moments like these, she really wished for the ability to quickly craft a sassy comeback. One that would have made Riley see her as an equal better yet, a sexy equal. Instead, what she came up with amounted to, Blah blah blah, stammer, stumble...CUTE. Nice. Good one, Chelle. Her response, she was sure, had only served to solidify the way Riley did see her - as his best friends kid sister. He smiled, seemingly completely unaware of her internal battle. The smile spread slowly across his face, as sweet and languid as the syrup that had just spread slowly across their pancakes moments ago. When the smile had finally reached full wattage, he said, Youre pretty cute, yourself. Holy catfish! How did that man make the word cute sound so sexual? Maybe she was just projecting, or maybe he really did think being cute was sexy. Either way she needed to get out of there before she said something that would cement her in the best-friends-little-sister category. But she couldnt just walk out and ignore his last comment. Oh what to do...what to do...? Dang it, she was just going to have to open her mouth and speak again. That had an equal chance of ending up with success and disaster. Damn it! Well, she thought, here goes nothing. Thanks. Im gonna go take my cute self to the shower, then. She smiled outwardly but inwardly groaned, feeling her stomach drop to the floor. Really take my cute self to the shower, that was the best you could come up with after the man that you have been crushing on for twenty years pays you not one, but two, complimentsin a row!? Still, not as bad as it could have been, she tried to comfort herself. But not great. Nope.

Certainly not great. Oh, Lord. Riley was way out of her league. She was in SO FAR over her head! If that little exchange did not serve to prove that fact, she wasnt sure what would. She ducked her head and walked quickly to her room. Before closing the door she heard Rileys parting remark, delivered in a spicy and mischievous tone. Have fun. She leaned against the door, breathing hard. If she were Samantha, she would open up the door and say something sexy and provocative like, I will have funif you join me. BUT, she was not. So, instead, the best she could manage was to yell, Uh, yeah...thanks, through the wooden door. Yep. Definitely NOT Samantha.

Chapter Eleven
As he stepped onto the pier with Chelle, Riley was glad that he had made sure she brought both a jacket and gloves. He smiled to himself. Not that he wouldnt thoroughly enjoy keeping her warm, but the smart thing to do was definitely to keep his hands to himself. Damn, it was a struggle, though. For the past couple of days - not to mention nights - he had been trying to do just that. But, then things would happen. Like when the cab driver made a sharp left turn and Chelle had slid - actually more like slammed - into him. In that instance, Riley suspended his self-imposed 'no touching' rule and allowed himself a few moments to let his fingertips roam her body, making sure that everything was still intact. All G-rated areas, of course! He was careful when he smoothed his hand over her leg, for instance, that he stayed on the outer thigh. If he had gone inner thigh...well, probably best not to even let his imagination wander down that path. Suffice it to say that they may not have made it out of the cab. But, he had to admit that carnal desires aside - he was glad that they did manage to exit the cab at their destination, because Chelles expression when she realized that he was surprising her with a day cruise was worth it. The day before, as they had been walking around on Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, he had noticed her face light up as she longingly gazed at the large boats filled with tourists. The expression of desire which painted her face as she looked at those boats lazily cruising the bay was not quite as intense as the hungry looks she had been shooting his way for the past couple of days, but what the hell. This was at least something he could actually fulfill for her. He wished more than anything that, when she looked at him with desire pouring out of those big brown eyes, he could fulfill that as well - but he knew better. He knew that one touch, one real kiss, would never be enough with Chelle. Hell, they had only spent the last forty-eight hours together and he was already having a tough time thinking of not seeing her when he left to go to New Orleans! It was becoming difficult to picture a day without her in it, without the smell of her coconut and cinnamon shampoo. Without seeing the funny faces she made when she thought she was rambling or when she said something that embarrassed her. Without experiencing her caring and her kindness, not just to him but to everyone she came in contact with. But the thing he was having the hardest time coming to terms with not seeing on a daily basis was her smile. That smile could probably end wars, he guessed. Or start them. He would do just about anything to see that smile. But he really needed to remember that this

time with her was just temporary. Also, even if he could offer her everything she deserved, he knew that she was vulnerable right now. She had planned on marrying another man in just a few weeks and that man had seriously betrayed her. A situation like that didn't exactly put someone in the right frame of mind to start another relationship. Nope, in fact, what usually followed a breakup of the sort of epic proportions that Chelle had just experienced was what was most commonly referred to as a rebound. And from what Riley had seen and heard, rebounds did not usually last. If he was the kind of guy Chelle deserved, he would definitely want to start and build something with her that lasted. He would want to be in it for the long haul. Not that it mattered anyway. He wasnt the forever kind of guy. And Chelle was definitely a forever girl. As they stepped onto the shaky steps to board the boat, excitement radiated from Chelle. Oh my gosh, she grinned, Thank you so much Riley! I cant believe you did this! He smiled back. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I saw you eyeing the boats as they passed by while we were out on the pier yesterday, he confessed and then shrugged. I decided to take a chance. I am so glad you did! But, wow, am I really that transparent? She chuckled, still beaming. He brushed back a few strands of hair that were blowing in her face and tucked them behind her ear, To me you are. They both froze instantly. It was as if time stood still. Each was lost in the other's gaze. They stood like that, inside their own bubble of magic, until Riley was jostled from behind by eager passengers waiting to come aboard. This broke the spell that they had momentarily found themselves under. Chelle turned and, still somewhat breathless, continued onto the ship. There were two decks on the boat. The lower one had an indoor section enclosed with big, sparkling windows, behind which sat several rows of wooden benches, affording even the indoor passengers a spectacular view of the San Francisco bay. This small section was the only space on the boat where passengers could get out of the elements, and Riley predicted that it would be quite crowded today due to the strong gusts of wind that were already whipping past his face, even before the vessel disembarked. Indeed, the majority of the tourists rushed past the two of them and into the indoor space, clamoring to get a good seat close to the glass walls. Chelle, on the other hand, seemed to have other plans. She immediately headed up the winding steel staircase to the upper deck. Riley followed, but when they reached the top he asked, Are you sure you want to be up

here? It might get pretty cold. Her smile never wavered as she turned sparkling eyes to him, Are you kidding me? Were going under the Golden Gate Bridge! I wont be able to see anything if Im downstairs. Im not going down there. Okay, He shrugged, If youre sure. He was still not entirely convinced that they would, in fact, spend the entire four hours of the cruise on the upper deck, but if she was happy being up here now, that was good enough for him. Besides, a small voice in the back of his head piped up the one he always likened to the devil on his shoulder if she gets cold then she just might need someone to keep her warm. He shook his head, trying to erase the thought. Then, another little voice in his head the one he always likened to the angel on the other shoulder piped in this little field trip was not planned so he could grope Eddies little sister. The thought of Eddie did put into perspective the very things he had been trying to convince himself of since the moment he looked down at Chelles sleeping form. Eddie was his best friend. And for all of the trouble they got in, Eddie always had his back. He owed Eddie big time and he was not going to repay him by playing grab ass with his little sister. If he even had a shot at keeping himself under some kind of control, the only way to do it was not to think of Chelle as the beautiful, sexy, smart, funny, caring person that she was. No, he could only allow himself to see her as Eddies little sister. As they sat down on one of the small benches, he intentionally left about six inches between them, because that was the right thing to do when you sat next to your best friends little sister. They sat in companionable silence looking out over the water. A loud blast from the horn shattered their quiet moment and let them know that they were about to shove off. Chelle's smile grew even wider, which Riley would not have thought was possible, and she started clapping her hands together and bouncing up and down with childlike excitement. Riley chuckled a little, her joy was very contagious. It was like he became happier via osmosis. He couldnt remember the last time he had felt this vital, this alive. These last two days with Chelle made the last twelve years of his life seem like a fog that he was just now waking up from. He felt like the world he had lived in for the past decade had been drawn in shades of beige, and now everything was in technicolor. Im so excited! Chelle exclaimed as the boat pulled away from the dock. I can tell. Riley said, he heard the amused affection in his own voice. Dang. He seriously needed to lock that down or he was going to get himself into trouble. Chelle pulled out her phone and started taking pictures. She snapped photos of everything they

passed - of the water, the other boats, and the city as they were passing by. She went a little nuts with the pics as they passed by Alcatraz, even by the liberal standards that she had set during the early part of the trip. She stood and leaned over the railing slightly to get a better angle for her amateur phone photography. The farther she reached out, the more precarious her perch seemed, and the more nervous Riley became. He figured that his protective instinct must have kicked then, because it was the only way to explain what happened next - before he even realized what he was doing, he found himself behind her with his arms wrapped tightly around her waist. She jumped at the initial contact and looked over her shoulder, seeming surprised at the sudden embrace. But as soon as her eyes locked with his, a smile spread across her face and she melted into him. His body acted on its own accord and he felt his arms tightening around her. This time it had nothing to do with her safety, and everything to do with the feeling of rightness spreading through him from the close physical contact. Neither of them spoke, they just stood there, Rileys arms wrapped tightly around Chelles waist. As much as he told himself that he needed to, he simply couldnt bring himself to step away and release his hold on her. He had never felt more at peace, more at home than he did in that moment, on the boat, with Chelle in his arms. --- ~ --HOLY CATFISH! Chelle figured that this must be some sort of a dream. Yep. She was still asleep in her bed, and the Chinese food was doing its work, fooling her brain into thinking that unrealistic scenarios were literal realities. Had to be. There was no other explanation for the fact that she had just gone underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in Riley Sloans arms. She felt tempted to raise her phone and take a double selfie, just so that she could later assure herself that the scenario had, in fact, taken place...but she resisted the urge because she didn't want to scare him off. She was hesitant to take any action that would encourage Riley to move away or release her from his all-encompassing embrace. She was pretty sure that Riley had initially grabbed her out of fear that she was going to go over the edge, but she didnt think for one minute that was why he still held her in his arms. If she had, she would have been formulating plans for making him think she would be jumping off the top of the TransAmerica building next...but, no, she was pretty sure that wasn't what was going on here. Nosireebob, this was no longer a fear-for-her-safety embrace. She tried not to read too much into it. I mean, hey. He had probably just missed home and she represented home to him.

Or maybe he was just cold. After being out on the bay for what was probably an hour (but what felt like just a few minutes, because time flew while she was being held in Rileys arms!) the boat began turning around and heading back the way they had come. The waters were choppy and they hit a large wave, causing the boat to rock sharply. They both lost their balance and began to tumble back onto the wooden bench. Stumbling backwards, Chelle turned to catch herself but ended up falling instead onto Rileys very solid, very firm body. In fact, she face-planted right into his chest. She sat there for a moment, trying to wrap her head around the events as they unfolded, and it took a bit before she acclimated herself enough to realize that one particular portion of Rileys body felt especially hard. She felt his impressive length pressed against her belly. HELLO! Are you okay? His deep voice vibrated through his chest and it sent a zing running down her spine. She looked up into his gorgeous face and saw that his champagne colored eyes were trained on hers. Im good, she managed to squeak out. She was surprised that she was able to form any words at all since it felt like her brain was melting into a big puddle of goo. She figured that the simple expression of 'I'm good' must have just been what the autonomic part of her brain, the one that controlled her heartbeat and breathing, was able to spit back on autopilot, because she certainly hadn't been aware of consciously forming the words. Hell, they were certainly true, though! In fact, she was SO good that she would be perfectly happy to continue the rest of the trip sprawled over him like a blanket. But, she knew that he was flat on his back against an uncomfortable wooden bench and although his body was letting her know (in no uncertain terms) that he was enjoying their close proximity, she sorta felt like she was taking advantage of his purely physical reaction to having a female as a human duvet. It probably had nothing to do with her in particular, she reasoned. Sadly enough, she really didnt believe Riley saw her that way. It was more likely just a physical reaction that he had no control over. But, Good LORD, did that reaction feel good! Get up, stay put, get up, stay put. Hmmmm....back and forth, back and forth. What to do, what to do...? Finally, her internal battle was lost (or won, depending on what side you were on...) and she decided to get up. She knew that women fell all over Riley all the time, and she didnt want to be one of the trite women who would do thatliterally, in her case. She pushed up slightly and moved her leg off of Riley with the intention of setting it down on

the floor, but the bench was higher than she realized, so her foot didnt make contact with the surface below. The movement only caused her body to shift in position so that his hard-on was nestled right between her legs, pressing firmly against her sensitized center. Damn, he felt good. Too good. Her body instantly responded to the intimate position. She felt a delicious ache between her legs which quickly progressed to a steady throbbing. Her panties were getting moister by the second. His muscles bunched under her fingers as they grasped his shirt and she itched to touch his skin. She wanted to slowly explore every inch of his amazing body and she wanted to take her sweet time doing it. She wanted to memorize every line, every dip, every muscle of which one in particular had her undivided attention at the moment! His chest rose and fell rapidly under her hands. She looked up and saw that his eyes were mirroring the desire that was exploding inside of her like fireworks on the Fourth of July. She licked her lips. That was a nervous habit that she had tried to break for years. But, this time, when she heard the deep growl it caused Riley to make and saw his eyes grow fierce with passion, she decided maybe it wasnt such a bad habit after all. Chelle. Her name sounded like a warning. She smirked to herself. Hell, if he was trying to warn her away from him, he was barking up the wrong tree. She had wanted Riley Sloan for as long as she could remember. The only reason she hadn't tried to make something happen before this was because she knew that he was out of her league and was trying not to get burned. But, hey - she had played it safe and still gotten burned. And, what's more, this time in San Francisco might be her one and only chance with Riley. Looking into his eyes, feeling his body beneath her she started to think playing with fire could be fun. She could see in his eyes and feel in his body that he was battling with something, probably trying to talk himself out of what his body was telling him he wanted. Well, no harm in helping tip the scales in her favor. She took a deep breath and rolled her hips against him as she moved her body higher to press her lips to his. She was really going to go for it. Not like yesterday. Go big or go home! His fingers dug into her backside as he pulled her closer to him. Their lips touched just as the boat rocked wildly again. Chelle thought for sure they were going to tumble off of the bench, but Riley quickly sat up and had them anchored and secure between the wooden benches. When the boat violently jerked, Chelle had instinctively thrown her arms around him and buried her face in the crook of his neck. Now that they were safely seated upright she kept her face there and did not release her arms. She held onto him for dear life. She did this, not because she really thought they were in any true danger. The only thing in

danger, she feared, was her heart. Even with that knowledge she didnt release her hold. She just loved how it felt to be this close to him, plastered against him. It was perfect. Its okay. Riley rubbed up and down her back with his free hand. His tone and gesture she was sure was meant to be soothing, but instead it was just fanning the flames of lust that were raging inside of her. She had to know what it felt like to kiss, really kiss, Riley Sloan. She knew it may not be the smartest thing to do but...screw it. She lifted her head and looked into his eyes, his grip tightened around her. She moved her lips toward him as she felt her hot breath mingling with his... Are you guys okay? A young crew member raced up the steel steps, We didnt know anyone was up here. Riley barely spared him a glance, Were fine. The waters are getting pretty rough. We're gonna need you guys to go ahead and come on down to the lower deck. For safety. Well be down in a minute. Rileys authoritative tone surprised Chelle. She had never heard him speak to someone like that. She kinda liked it. She looked up at the nervous guy standing with a worried look on his face, probably just trying to follow orders. Poor kid, she smiled and a blush rose on his fair cheeks. Um, well...okay. Crew boy quickly turned and made his way down the stairs. Chelle looked up at Riley, Are we going to go down? He quickly and efficiently moved and settled her beside him on the bench. She loved how easily he maneuvered her. It made all kinds of fun images of what he would be like in bed pop into her head. She was definitely going to file that in the mental slide-show for another time. We are as soon as this does. He looked down at his lap. Oh. She wanted to laugh but she didnt think he would appreciate it. He did seem a little tense. Although she was actually feeling pretty happy (and more than a little proud!) about the fact that he was sporting such impressive wood due to her, she did also feel a little bad. She knew that they did, indeed, need to get down to the lower deck. Well I think I can help with that situation. She stated. His expression told her that he thought the help she was offering entailed much more than what she intended. Not that she would mind helping like that, but...not here. Chelle. There was that warning tone again. She was actually starting to think it was really

cute the way he kept saying her name like that. She smiled and his eyes grew even more intense, she chuckled and shook her head I wasnt talking about that. She wished she was though. Im really gonna help. One of his eyebrows shot up, How? My brother called yesterday. He wants you to call him. Riley groaned and his head fell back. She looked down at his lap. Sure enough, mentioning her brother had done the trick. See? Told ya. She patted his arm, laughing, as she got up and they made their way down to the lower deck.

Chapter Twelve
People were packed into the small glass-encased room like sardines. Chelle normally didnt like small, confined places but this time it wasnt so bad. The difference? In this case, the overcrowding caused her to be pressed tightly to Riley, so she liked it just fine. Riley ran his hands up and down her arms. His touch caused shivers to run through her body like a wild river. He must have mistaken this response as her being cold, because he said he was going to go and get her a cup of hot cocoa. She smiled and nodded, mostly because she didnt trust herself not to burst out in tears. He was just so thoughtful, always noticing things about her, and constantly trying to take care of her. No one had ever done that for her. Well, no guy anyway. Katie had always been like that, but it felt a lot different coming from a man and, hell, this was not just any man. This was Riley Sloan! As he moved away she saw that there was room on a bench in the far corner of the room and she went to go snag it. Now that Riley wasnt standing behind her for support, her legs did feel a little wobbly as the ship made its way through the choppy waters. She asked the woman who was sitting at the end of the bench with a child asleep across her lap if the spaces were taken. She shook her head no and Chelle quickly sat down. The dark-haired woman turned and nodded as she smiled at her, Youre quite a lucky gal. Chelle eyes followed where the woman tipped her head to and saw Riley standing in line at the small beverage bar. When he caught her looking his way he smiled and Chelle felt it down to her soul, breaking open just a little bit more of her heart. Good lord, she was in trouble! Whens the wedding? The woman asked. Chelle returned her attention to the woman, Excuse me? The woman looked down at Chelles left finger and Chelle realized that she was still wearing Davids ring. She had just gotten so used to having it on her finger. She hadnt even noticed it she still had it on. What did that say about her? Wouldnt the normal reaction when an engagement was broken be to take the ring off of your finger? Immediately? In a rage? And then fling it into a lake...or...sell it on eBay? Something? Why hadnt she done that? Maybe it was because she wasnt one of those girls that had always dreamt of a big diamond ring. She had never really given the ring itself much thought after she and David had gotten engaged.

But, still. How had she literally not noticed it on her hand these last couple of weeks? Is something wrong? The woman asked, concern lacing her voice. Chelle nodded her head up and down. She remained silent, lacking both the will and the ability to find the words which would explain her odd behavior. Whats wrong? Riley was there, standing next to her. She glanced back at the woman who had asked about the ring and she was looking out the window watching the water, obviously not wanting to intrude. Chelle? He sat down and his concerned tone made her feel the way only Riley had ever made her feelspecial. She thought it was really sweet but she really didnt want to make a big deal out of this. Nothing, thanks for the hot cocoa. She smiled up at him as she took the cup from his hand. He looked into her eyes, searching for some clue that she was not, in fact, okay. She did her best to mask any internal turmoil by leaning down and blowing on the surface of the hot drink before bringing it to her lips and sipping it. She decided it was probably best to change the subject. She smiled brightly, Did you want to grab a bite when we get back to the pier? He shook his head. Actually, I need to go see my buddy Tommy. He and his wife just had a baby. I was originally supposed to meet up with them the night before I was scheduled to fly home, thats why I was headed to San Francisco. Chelle felt her stomach drop to the ground. A wave of utter disappointment washed over her. She knew her reaction was completely ridiculous, and she did her best to get it in check before it had the chance to show in her facial expression. He had a life. He had friends. He didnt need to babysit her. She also knew that if she felt this upset just because she wasnt going to be with him for a few hours, then she really wasnt doing a good enough job maintaining her grasp on the fact that this time they were sharing was extremely temporary. This little development was like a blinking neon sign warning her that she was getting WAY too attached to having him around. She was forming an addiction to his presence, and if she let it go on much longer, then detoxing was going to be a real bitch! It was probably a good thing that this dinner came up when it did. It was like reality was giving her a slap in the face. This isnt a real thing, you and Riley, she told herself. You need to remember that THIS ISN'T REAL! Riley was only here because Katie was worried about Chelle, and Jason wanted to stay on his honeymoon. He was doing everyone a favor.

That thought made her feel really bad about kissing him...let's be honest, practically seducing him...on the upper deck. She pasted on her best smile, Oh, thats great! She hoped she sounded convincing. Have you ever eaten Indonesian food? He asked. She shook her head, Nope, I dont think so. Dont look sad. Dont look sad. She repeated these words over and over again in her head. She was trying as hard as she could to keep her countenance upbeat, positive. She would have time to process this completely disproportionate reaction to him being gone for a couple of hours when he left to go meet his friend. Now was not the time! Well I know Mindy, Tommys wife, was planning on making Indonesian food. They asked if that was okay with us? Huh? She thought she must have heard him incorrectly due to the internal dialogue running through her head like a ticker tape. She didnt want to make a fool of herself and assume that she was invited. Although...that was what it sounded like. I asked if Indonesian would be alright. He gave her a strange, somewhat concerned, look. Kind of like the one her mom would give her before touching the back of her hand to Chelle's head to check for a temperature. She still was not 100% convinced that his question meant that she was invited, so she decided to clarify, Did you want me to go? He tilted his head to the side a little, his puzzled look intensifying, Yeah, of course I do. Woo Hoo (happy dance in full effect!), he wanted her to go with him! Wait...but what if he was just asking out of obligation? What if he felt like it would be rude not to include her? She definitely didnt want to be some kind of pity case. She didnt want him to feel like he had to invite his best friends little sister, who had just gotten dumped practically at the altar. Okay, maybe she was being slightly dramatic. But still, she didnt want to impose. She should let him off the hook. Oh no, dont worry about me! You should go, have fun, catch up. Ill be fine. He smiled a smile that she had never seen before and she thought that her panties might spontaneously combust - burst into flames right there on the Blue and Gold boat. WOW! So that is what a panty-melting smile was! I want you to come with me. Tommys wife Mindy is a sweetheart. I think you two would really get along. They just had a baby, who I'm sure they want to show off to as many admirers as

possible. Plus...you dont want me to feel like the odd man out, do you? No, she rushed to explain, I just thought...well...I dont want you to feel like you have to invite me. Chelle felt a blush creep up her cheeks. Riley brushed aside a hair that had fallen in her face and tucked it behind her ear. His fingertips lingered below her ear, his thumb slowly traced her jawline. I want you to go, he said simply. Well, damn. How could she possibly say no to that? Okay. She smiled. She heard him let out an audible breath. She saw his hazel eyes trained on her mouth, God, I love it when you do that. What? she asked with a nervous little laugh, Agree with you? She didn't know where this was going but she was really enjoying the way his gaze was laser-focused on her. Smile. I love it when you smile. His tone sounded rough, like he was on the ragged edge. She smiled even wider and he groaned and leaned back in his chair. Hmm, interesting, she thought. SO...maybe he doesn't just look at me as Eddies little sister. That discovery made her feel as giddy as a schoolgirl whose crush just asked her to prom. She didnt know if anything was ever going to happen between them. She didnt know if he would get on a plane tomorrow and this little fantasy bubble they had been living in would burst. But for tonight, she was just going to enjoy the time she did have with Riley. And oh, yeah...she was definitely going to keep smiling.

Chapter Thirteen
Chelle had wanted to take a shower before they headed over to Tommys for dinner and Riley had thought that would be a good time to get himself under control - to get his mind right so he would stop drooling over Chelle. That had been the plan, at any rate. But all that he had done since he heard the water come on through the paper thin walls was imagine Chelle, naked under the spray. The way her body would look with drops of water sliding down her curves. He shook his head, trying to erase the images that were flashing one after another like a peep show in his mind. Wait! Chelle had mentioned that Eddie wanted to talk to him. He should call Eddie. That would put things into perspective real quick. He scrolled through his phone and found Eddie's name in his contact list. He pressed call. Eddie answered before it had even gotten to the second ring. Are you still with my sister? Okay, so, apparently no pleasantries then. Yeah, Im still in San Francisco. That sounded better than yes Im still with your sister. Is she okay? Eddie did not sound happy, and Riley couldnt blame him. She seems okay, Riley answered. Then why are you still there? Eddies tone left no room for misinterpretation. This wasnt a question, it was an accusation. I dont want to leave her alone. Shes been through a lot. Riley would not normally put up with this kind of questioning from anyone. He was a grown man and what he did in his private life was his own God damn business. But this wasn't 'anyone' - this was Eddie. His best friend. He and Eddie had been pretty wild in their teens. Riley knew for damn sure that if Eddie had tried to mess around with one of his cousins, he would have lost his shit. And Chelle wasnt Eddies cousin - she was his sister. His only sister. His baby sister. Guy code clearly states that you dont mess around with your friends little sister. Riley knew that. But, the truth was...Riley hadnt done anything. Sure, he had thought about ita lot. And today on the boat he was one second away from losing control and taking her on the upper deck. He knew it would have happened if that damn kid hadnt interrupted them. But the point was...he hadnt! And, as for tonight, he had made sure that they werent going to have an intimate dinner alone. Nope. They were going to have chaperones!

What have you guys been doing? Eddie obviously was not going to drop this. Riley didnt blame him. Hanging out, seeing the city. Where have you been sleeping? On the couch. That was the truth. There was no denying it. Riley just prayed Eddie wouldn't ask him where Chelle had been sleeping... Look, Im not stupid. I know shes always had some kind of a thing for you. A crush. She always asks about you and brings up your name pseudo-casually. For some reason that new piece of information made Riley feel good. Really good. But this is Chelle were talking about. Youre not what she needs. I know you man. I love you like a brother, but Eddie paused. Riley said nothing. He wasn't sure what Eddie was about to say, but he was pretty damn sure that he wasn't going to like it. She deserves better. Nice. Like David the douchebag? Riley snapped back. He really hadnt meant to. He knew exactly what Eddie was talking about, and he knew it was true. Chelle deserved a hell of a lot better than him. He knew that in his head. He just needed to make sure that his heart (and dick) were on the same page. Look, I never liked that guy, alright? But she seemed happy and I honestly didnt know him that well. But I know you. Ouch. Im just staying to make sure that she's doing okay. Riley didnt want Eddie stressing about the situation. Riley was handling it and he was done discussing it. He was moving on to the next topic whether Eddie felt like coming along or not. Hows Emily feeling? Riley didnt know if his not-so-subtle attempt to change the subject would work, but he thought he would at least give it a try. There was a long pause, but Riley remained silent. He would give Eddie the space to figure out how he wanted to proceed. He heard a sigh on the other end of the line. Shes doing better. She wont go back to school till next week so she is going a little stir crazy. But she is getting all caught up on Pretty Little Liars so thats keeping her mind off of how bored she is. Eddies voice filled with love as he spoke of his daughter. I dont even know what Pretty Little Liars is. Riley said flatly.

Man, I wish I didnt. Eddie sighed. They laughed and Riley promised to get Chelle back to Harpers Crossing safe and sound. He hung up and felt a knot forming in his gut. He hadnt realized it until right now, but the fact that Eddie was still clearly not okay with anything happening between him and Chelle made him feel like a low life for where his mind had gone since seeing her again. Riley knew that Eddie wasnt just being an ass. He had seen a lot of Riley at his worst, and Eddie knew Rileys views on commitment. Riley was the very last person that a loving big brother should want his baby sister to get involved with! But, damn. Even with this new knot that had taken residence in his stomach, he still wanted Chellebad. He wasnt even sure how he had actually managed to keep his hands off of her up until this point. But with every smile, every innocent brush, every look that told him she wanted him as much as he wanted her...God. It was getting harder and harder- both figuratively and literally. Realistically, he only had a few more days - a week, tops - with her in San Francisco. Once they were home, keeping his distance would be easier. That realization should have made him feel relieved. Instead, the thought of not spending his days with her just made him feel sad and empty. Oh, well. It wasnt like sad or empty were new feelings for him. He had felt a hole in his life since his mom left when he was eight, and it only got bigger when she had died when he was twelve. But his issues were not Chelles problem. She had enough to deal with without him coming into her life and creating drama and problems. He needed to keep his hands, his mouth, and every other body part to himself. Not just because of Eddie, and how much Riley owed him. But also for Chelle. Because no matter how strong and significant their connection felt to him, he knew that Eddie was right. She deserved better. So much better. She deserved forever. --- ~ --Chelle was trying really hard not to feel self-conscious as they made their way up the short path to Rileys friends townhouse, but if she were honest, she knew that she wasnt doing a great job in that department. As soon as Chelle had come out of the room, excited and ready to go, she sensed something had changed between her and Riley. It wasnt anything too obvious. Its not like he was being mean to her. He was being as nice as he always was. Thoughtful, even. He had reminded her to bring her keys (which she probably would

have remembered). He had made sure that she brought a jacket (which she absolutely would have forgotten). He had complimented her on her dress. But, still. It wasnt the same. He just said, You look really nice, in a tone that was almost without inflection. He hadnt even met her eyes when he said it. She briefly wondered if he were acting that way because he had noticed that she had taken off her engagement ring, since (as far as she could tell) that was the only thing that had changed. But no...that would be silly. Why would he care? She felt like a complete and total idiot for having it on as long as she had, but he probably hadnt even noticed it. Unless...could he sense her growing attachment to him, and the absence of the ring symbolized that? Shit. That would be embarrassing. Regardless of the cause, there was definitely a distance between them. It was like he had put up a wall that she was not allowed to pass. He also seemedsad. She was trying not to read too much into it, but she just couldnt help it. It was as if he were an entirely different person. Okay, she thought, that's it. I'm clearly a fifth wheel here, and I don't need to be where I'm not wanted. It's not doing me any good, and it'll interfere with Riley's ability to have fun with his friends. This isn't good for anybody. She was just about to make up an excuse about why she suddenly needed to head home, and tell him that he should stay and catch up with his friend, when the front door of the townhouse flung open. She was momentarily paralyzed by what she saw. It was like David Beckham and Johnny Depp had a love child. The man standing before her was beautiful. Sloan, man good to see you! The man (whom she assumed was Tommy) pulled Riley into a hug. Its been too long, bro. Riley nodded as he slapped the man on the back, Yeah, it has, Baxter. The man turned to her and Chelle was once again blown away by his sheer physical perfection. Not in a How you doin? kind of way. She definitely didnt feel any butterflies or zings. She had just never seen anyone who was that perfect in real life. Hey, he greeted her, Im Tommy. And you must be the emergency. A mischievous smile spread across his face. She furrowed her brow and tilted her head in confusion. She glanced at Riley and he put his hand on her lower back, Tommy Baxter, this is Rachelle Thomas. Chelle, this ugly bastard is Tommy. Nice to meet you. Chelle smiled and shook Tommys hand. She was trying not to concentrate on how good, how right, it felt for Riley to be touching her again. Bingo! That is what had felt so off before, she thought. It wasnt just his mood or his change in

demeanor. It was the fact that he had made absolutely sure not to touch her. Stepping to the side as she passed him in the hall, opening the door and then backing completely out of the way before she stepped through it. He had even placed the bottle of wine and small present for Tommy and Mindy's baby Serena, which they had picked up on their way back from the cruise, between the two of them in the cab. Now, just this small connection of his hand resting on her lower back filled her with an 'all is right in the world' sensation. Everything was how it should be. Crap! She had it bad. Nice to meet you too. Tommy smiled and a look passed between him and Riley that felt significant, although she couldnt quite put her finger on why that was. Come on in. The baby just woke up so Mindy is upstairs with her. Congratulations, man! I am so happy for you guys. Riley seemed a little bit more like himself as they walked through the entrance of the gorgeous Victorian-style townhome. She looked around and felt like she had walked through the front door and right into the pages of Better Homes and Garden magazine. It was breathtaking. Wow, your home is so beautiful, she said, hearing the awe in her own voice. Yeah, my wife loves all things HGTV. She did a lot of redecorating while we were waiting for Serena to arrive. I think she called it nesting. Well, she did a great job. This looks like a house that could be featured on one of those shows, Chelle said, still taking in every detail. Thanks. Chelle looked up and saw a stunning dark-haired woman carrying a little bundle of love down the wooden stairway. Chelle could not believe that the woman before her had recently had a baby. With her exotic, dark beauty and tall, willowy frame, she looked more like a runway model than the mother of a newborn. The woman smiled as she reached the bottom step. Her face was open and friendly. I was going stir-crazy waiting for this little princess to show up and I may have gone a little overboard. No, not at all. Its incredible. Hey, Gorgeous. Riley pulled her and the baby into a hug. Watch it, Sloan, Tommy joked, Dont get all handsy with my wife. Mindy laughed. Riley turned to Chelle, Chelle, this is Mindy...Mindy, Chelle. They said their hellos and Tommy stepped up and kissed his wife on the forehead, And this little angel is Serena. Chelle moved forward and looked down at the baby, Oh, shes so beautiful. Shes perfect. And she was. Chelle didnt think in all of her years at the hospital she had ever seen such a

beautiful baby. Thank God she takes after you, Mindy. Riley teased. They laughed. Do you want to hold her? Mindy asked, and as she spoke she was already in the process of placing baby Serena into Rileys arms. Oh boy! Was there anything sexier than a big, strong, tough man holding a tiny little baby? Nope, Chelle decided as she attempted not to blatantly drool, there sure as hell wasnt. Riley looked so at ease holding the baby. Chelle had seen a lot of new fathers that looked supremely uncomfortable and awkward when they held their babies, but Riley looked like an old pro. She felt an ache in her chest. Hoo boy. She knew that she was beginning to want things that she had no business wanting. She likes you. Mindy smiled, Youre good with her. Tommy stepped behind his wife and pulled her close to him, wrapping his arms around her waist. Yeah, man. When are you gonna get one of these? Riley looked at them, smiling a little. Chelle thought that the smile seemed a little wistful. A wife or a kid? Both. Tommy smiled back, and there was nothing wistful about his grin. It radiated nothing but pure joy. I dont think its in the cards, man. Riley again turned his attention to the tiny bundle in his arms. Which one, the wife or the kids? Tommy shot back. Both. Riley stared down at Serena, who began wiggling in his arms. Thats what I thought, too. Tommy kissed the top of his wifes head. Now I dont know what the hell I was even doing before this. Mindy shook her head and laughed, I do. You were getting drunk with your buddies and being a man-whore. Chelle watched the interaction between the two of them and a twinge of sadness began to form in her chest. She wanted that - the easy camaraderie that accompanied the sparks that flew off of them every time their eyes met. She had never experienced that before, never fit with someone that way. She had seen that kind of a relationship, sure - with Jason and Katie. But she had thought it must be a fluke. A once in a lifetime kind of connection. She had only been around Tommy and Mindy for a few minutes, but she already recognized that they had the same kind of love that Jason and Katie had. When Tommy looked at his wife it was like the rest of the world didnt exist. She wanted a man to look at her that way. Like all he needed

was her. Alright, you boys head out back. That Sat is not going to barbeque itself. Im gonna go check on the peanut sauce. She began to take baby Serena out of Rileys arms. Can I hold her? Chelle asked. She loved babies so much. Which was the main reason she had chosen to work as a nurse in labor and delivery. Mindy smiled widely, Of course. Shes qualified, Riley said as he handed the small infant to Chelle, shes a nurse in the baby place in the hospital. If Chelle was not mistaken, she heard a note of pride in his voice. Hmm. That observation warmed her from within more than it probably ought to. Labor and delivery, Chelle smiled as she clarified, and the group chuckled. As Chelle took the precious bundle from Rileys arms and their skin connected for a moment, something passed between them. It felt more like a shot of pure electricity than anything Chelle had ever experienced. She was momentarily stunned by it, paralyzed. But then she felt Miss Serena squirming in her arms and was brought out of the trance-like state that shock had momentarily put her into. She looked down at the newborn and, like clockwork, tears began to form in her eyes. For some reason, every time she held a new baby for the first time, she got choked up. Everyone on the nursing floor she worked on teased her about it. It had, in fact, become a running joke in Labor and Delivery. They called her 'Waterworks.' She didnt mind. She wasnt embarrassed about it. New life was a miracle. Secretly, she kind of looked down on the others for not getting choked up, although she would never tell them that. I mean, come on...if you could look down into the face of a squirming little bundle of brand-new tiny human and not feel overwhelmed by the awesomeness inherent in that...well, Chelle couldn't wrap her mind around that level of jadedness. Not to mention, they were just damn cute. You okay? Riley asked. He rubbed the small of her back. She nodded and shook her head, I always get all misty-eyed whenever I hold a new baby for the first time. You must keep a lot of Kleenex on hand at work then, Tommy teased. Chelle smiled, I should have stock in the company. She looked back down at Serena. Her sweet face, her perfect lips, her long eyelashes. Riley moved closer to her, leaning close to her ear, Ill be out back if you need me. He placed a soft kiss on her temple and Chelle felt her knees go weak. Phew! Sensory overload!

Holding Serena, having Riley rub her back and whisper in her ear (and true it wasnt sweetnothings, but still!)...and then the cherry-on-top him kissing her sweetly before heading out back. How much more perfect could that moment be? A little voice in the back of her head reminded her that it wasnt real. Her perfect moment was not reality. Riley wasnt hers. She wasnt his. Okay, so maybe not the perfect moment...

Chapter Fourteen
Do you want a glass of wine, soda, water? Mindy offered as she was bustling around the kitchen. Water would be great, thanks. She had probably ingested more alcohol in the past week than she had in the entire twenty-eight years previous. It might not be a bad idea to give it a rest for the evening. Chelle sat at the beautiful oak kitchen table with baby Serena in her arms. So, Tommy said that you and Riley grew up together. Yeah, well, kind of. He and my older brother Eddie are really good friends. So, do you live out here now? Riley grew up close to Chicago, right? Mindy asked as she stirred scrambled eggs and chopped up pieces of chicken into rice, which she called Nasi Goreng. Yes, he did. We grew up in a little town called Harpers Crossing. And I actually still live in Harper's Crossing, I just came out here for, um, a vacation. Oh thats fun. How long are you staying? Im not sure. Maybe another week or so. So, Riley and you...is that new? Or have you guys been doing the long distance thing? Mindy was putting out a strong protective vibe and, although all these questions were making Chelle a little uncomfortable, she could sense that they werent being asked out of any sort of gossipy or nosy intention. No, it was obvious that Mindy wanted to safeguard Riley's happiness. She was trying to make sure that Chelle was on the up and up. Chelle could appreciate that. She would want to do the same. Although her protective instinct may have some ulterior motives attached to them (and, in fact, would probably be more in the realm of 'territorial' than 'protective') since she had feelings for Riley. But, she wanted the best for him all the same. Oh, Riley and I arent a couple. The poor guy just got dragged into the soap opera that is my life. Hes just looking out for me. Mindy gave her an odd look, So, you guys arent together? Chelle figured instead of beating around the bush and trying to tell half the story she might as well just come out with it. It was easier than trying to explain without really explaining. Plus, it would put Mindys mind at ease. No, we aren't. So, here's the story. A few weeks ago my best friend Katie married Rileys brother Jason. On the morning of the wedding, my fianc told me that he had been sleeping with his eighteen year old secretary, that she was pregnant, and they were getting married.

Holy crap! Indeed, Chelle agreed, and then pressed on, Katie, who is the sweetest best friend in the whole world, ended up finding out the news at the reception. She offered me her apartment here in the city. She just moved back to Harpers Crossing and still had a couple more months on her lease. She knew this would give me time to get my head together, and also time for Katie who is a lawyer, by the way, I forgot to mention that to convince my ex-fianc that it wasn't actually legal to decide that I had five days to vacate my condo, at which point his new girlfriend was changing the locks. Which was another little gem that he dropped on me at the wedding. At the reception, as a matter of fact. He sounds like a delight, Mindy said ironically, shaking her head. Oh, yeah. A real winner. Anyway, I got out here and started wallowing. All the alone time, you know? I wasn't answering my phone, so Jason and Katie got worried and asked Riley to stop by and check on me. Thats all, the whole sordid tale. Theres nothing going on between us. Mindy had turned away from the stove and now gave Chelle her undivided attention. Wow, Im so sorry. That is crazy, I dont even know what to say. Chelle smiled and looked back down at baby Serena who had fallen asleep, No, its fine. It actually feels good to say the whole thing out loud, get a little perspective on it. I wasn't fishing for sympathy, honest! I only told you because I didnt want you to get the wrong idea about Riley and me. She nodded and turned back to the stove, So how long is Riley planning on staying? Good question, Chelle thought to herself, I would love to know the answer to that myself! I dont know, Chelle responded, her voice a study in intentional casual inflection, He hasnt really said. Mindy looked out the window towards her husband and Riley, I know its none of my business, and I probably shouldnt say anything... she hesitated, and Chelle didn't know if she planned to go on. Oh, now you have to tell me, Chelle encouraged, Some of the best conversations in history have started with that opening line. I mean...probably some of the worst, as well, but let's not think about that part right now... The two women laughed, and Mindy looked more at ease. Chelle's joke had done the trick. Look, I dont know you that well, but I like you, Mindy confided, And if my intuition is correct, you care about Riley. A lot. I do, Chelle nodded, keeping her voice neutral, not sure if she was going to like what Mindy had to say but certain that she needed to hear it. Mindy put the burners on low and moved away from the stove to sit directly across from

Chelle. Ive known Riley for almost a decade now. Ive seen him with other women. A couple I think he genuinely cared about. Why did those words feel like a punch to Chelles solar plexus? Of course he had cared about women. He had said himself that he had been in a couple of serious relationships. It had nothing to do with her. She breathed out slowly, doing her level best not to let her internal turmoil show up on her face. Mindy continued, But Ive never NEVER seen him look at anyone the way he looks at you. Ive never seen him be affectionate with anyone, even his more serious girlfriends. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor when he kissed you right before he headed outside. Me too, to be honest, Chelle confided. Mindy smiled, Sometimes people dont see whats right in front of them. They are just too close to the situation. I know youve known him a lot longer than I have, and its not my place to say, but But what? Chelle was on pins and needles. I just think The sliding glass door slid open, Alright ladies, chicken Sat, fresh off the grill. Tommy held a plate stacked with chopped up chicken on kabob sticks. It smelled and looked delicious. Mindy stood and reached for Serena, Great! Let me put this little princess down and we can eat. As she took the baby from Chelles arms she winked at her conspiratorially and Chelle felt like she might have just made a very good, new friend.

Chapter Fifteen
Riley loved watching Chelle. He was blown away by how people responded to her, and how she seemed to blend seamlessly into any new situation. His friends obviously loved her, and she seemed to be having a good time, as well. After dinner, they all decided to go into the game room to play some cards, and Chelle was currently killing them at gin rummy. She looked so relaxed, like she didnt have a care in the world, and Riley thought that he could sit here, watching her laughing and having fun, for the rest of his life and never tire of it. They heard the baby cry and Mindy stood, Thats my cue. Yeah, that's probably our cue, too. Its getting late, we ought to get going. Riley stood and gave Mindy a hug. Do you mind if I go say goodbye to the baby? Chelle asked. Of course. Mindy threaded her arm through Chelles as the women headed up the stairs. As he watched her leave, he realized how perfectly she fit into his world. In fact, he realized that maybe it wasn't even so much that Chelle fit into his world, but more that his world had always had a Chellesized hole in it, just waiting for her to come along and take her rightful place. He knew this was a dangerous train of thought, but damn. The evidence was difficult to ignore. None of his family or friends from home had ever met his military family. Not even Eddie. He tended to keep those worlds separate. But Chelle just wove right in. No fuss, no muss. She was perfectly matched. Tommy remained seated and took a long swig of his beer. So, you still planning on heading down to New Orleans? Riley sat back down, Yeah. He picked up his Bud and took a drink. Really? Tommy didnt look convinced. In fact, he seemed a little 'smirky' for Riley's liking. Riley shrugged. Yeah, why wouldnt I? Tommys eyes moved to the stairs where Chelle had just been. Were just friends. Riley spoke harshly, he felt his jaw lock and a tension rolled through him. Tommy was a good guy, they had served four tours together. He would do anything for him. He trusted him with his life. But this was not a subject that was open for discussion. Tommy smiled, Look, I know we havent seen a lot of each other the last couple of years since I got out, but I do know you. And shes it for you. Shes the real deal. Riley did not want to go down this path. Were just friends, he stated again, firmly.

Tommy leaned forward resting his arms on the card table, I dont know if youre just too dumb to realize it or too chicken shit to admit it. But either way, it doesnt change the fact that you love that girl. And if Im not mistaken, she loves you. The question is - what are you going to do about it? Nothing. Riley knew he sounded angry, and he also knew his friend was just trying to look out for him. But Tommy didnt know him like he thought he did. He had only known Riley since he had joined the military. The man he was now wasnt the totality of who he was. There was a lot Tommy didnt know. Tommy reclined in his chair, Do you remember the night that I broke things off with Mindy, and you came over and told me that if I didnt make things right with her you were gonna kick my ass? Riley sighed. He had always suspected that somehow that night would come back to bite him in the ass. Hed been waiting for it. Here it was. He made it a rule to never get involved in other peoples personal lives. Too messy. Too much potential downside, almost zero potential upside. But, dammit, when he'd seen Mindy crying and she told him that Tommy had told her he needed space, he'd felt like he had to step in. He had known that Tommy thought he wasnt good enough for Mindy, that she would be better off with someone else. Tommy came from the south side of Boston, a pretty rough area. He was an only child. He never knew his dad and his mom had had more boyfriends than Tommy could count. Mindy grew up on a farm in New Hampshire. Her family was wealthy. Her parents were still together, happily married for over forty years. She had an older brother and a little sister, both of which she was extremely close to. Tommy had gotten drunk one night and told Riley that he felt like he would bring her down. That he didnt deserve someone as good as she was. Riley told him he was right, she was too good for him - but that, rather than breaking things off, he should pull his head out of his ass, accept that fact, quit his bitching, thank his lucky stars, and make sure he took good care of her. Tommy had looked unconvinced. Then, the very next week he saw Mindy leaving the base, tears streaming from her face and he had just felt like he needed to step in. Maybe it was just that he had been missing his younger brothers and felt guilty for bailing on them. Whatever the reason, after he had gone and given Tommy a push in the right direction, Tommy

heeded his advice. He went after Mindy and they were engaged that very night. Riley had been glad, at the time, that he'd broken his own personal credo to never get involved in peoples' business. But, as he was discovering, no good deed goes unpunished. Now, the shoe was on the other foot, and Tommy felt free to intervene in his affairs. Yeah, I remember. You told me the truth. You said that if I let her walk away because I had some bullshit notion that she would be better off without me, then I was the dumbest asshole you ever met and that she really would deserve better. Its not the same thing. You and Mindy had been together for years. Chelle and I are just friends. Man, you guys may not have the title, but youre together. Two seconds around you two and that is blatantly clear. Riley shook his head. Tommy didnt know what the hell he was talking about. He and Chelle didnt have what Tommy and Mindy had. And even if they did, it was completely different...because Chelle really did deserve better than him. Listen, just think about what I said, alright? Because, as we all know, I have been with my fair share of women. Some would say I'm a damn expert on the subject. And that one? Shes special, Riley. Girls like her dont come around that often. There are no girls like her. Riley heard the words come out of his mouth and he knew they were true. There was no other girl in the world like Rachelle Thomas. Tommy smiled. My point exactly. So dont lose her. Riley shook his head. I never had her. --- ~ --Riley needed to get some space, clear his head. Taking a few deep breaths didn't seem to be working. He had to get a little distance if he was going to get his head on straight. As it was, he didn't seem to be able to think of anything other than how incredibly sexy Chelle looked, and smelled, and...hell...even sounded. Just hearing her voice, saying even the most innocuous thing, could apparently get him hard in .0005 seconds. After they had gotten back from Tommys, he had asked if she wanted stay up and watch a movie, like they had when they were teenagers. She agreed. He said he would run down to the video store he had seen on the corner and pick something up. The nice thing about it was that he really did want to veg out and watch a movie. It worked out well that way. But the main reason he had suggested the activity was to create an errand that would

buy him a little time alone (and fresh air to boot) so that he could process what was going on between them. Between the last couple days with Chelle and his talks with both Eddie and Tommy, he was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts and emotions. On the one hand, he knew Tommy was right. There was absolutely no other girl in the world like Chelle. He knew that his feelings for her were real. He also knew that his current coping mechanisms (which basically consisted of pushing those feelings down and trying to ignore them) were not working. His feelings for Chelle grew stronger with every minute they spent together. But, on the flip side, he also knew that Eddie was right. He was not the man for Chelle. Eddies words kept echoing in his head. I know you. Youre not what she needs. She deserves better. All of which were true. He knew that, logically. But, emotionally and physically, he was having a tough time getting on board with that line of reasoning. He lived by instincts, he always had. Sometimes, like when he was in his teens after his mom passed away, those instincts had gotten him in trouble. But as an adult, and especially as a Marine Special Ops (MARSOC), those instincts had saved, not only his life, but the lives of other men and women during missions. In this case though, he was receiving conflicting instructions from those instincts. That certainly was not a feeling he was used to, and he didn't like it one bit. His protective instincts were telling him to keep his distance. Keep things G rated. Dont let her get too close. Save her from him. Then there were his base instincts. Well...those told a different story. They said that he needed her as much as she needed him. He needed to touch her. Taste her. Feel her. Claim her. Love her. Make her forget anyone else had ever existed outside of the two of them. Show her that he needed her more than he needed his next breath. Damn. The more time he spent around her, the stronger his base instincts became, and the more his protective instincts waned. That's why he needed this reprieve, needed these few minutes to try and make sense of the battle that was raging inside of him. He wasn't having much luck. As he approached the video store, he felt a vibration coming from his pocket. He was so lost

in thought that it startled him. He reached in, pulled out his phone, and saw that it was a text from Mindy: Great seeing you 2night. So glad you got to meet the little princess. LOVED Chelle! She is a keeper! SO get your head out of your ass and make that happen! Luv Ya! XOXO He had to smile. Mindy certainly did know how to get to the heart of the matter, and she had no problem telling it how it was. That was part of the reason why she was so good for Tommy - she kept him in line. He smiled as his thumbs flew across the keypad. Good seeing you guys too. Serena is amazing. Thanks for the pep talk. Will work on removing head from ass.

Chapter Sixteen
As soon as Riley left, Chelle put on sweats and pulled her hair up in a ponytail. She had just finished making some popcorn for their movie night when her phone rang. She grabbed it and saw that it was Katie. A grin spread from ear to ear as soon as she saw her friend's name and photo on the display. Hey diamond friend! You having fun in paradise? Yes I am, so much fun! Wow. You sound so much better than the last time we talked. Katies voice sounded shocked. Yeah, Im doing better. A lot better. Now that Rileys here, Chelle wanted to add, but didnt. And does this newfound betterness you speak of have anything to do with my new brotherin-law? Katie asked. Damn it. They didnt call Katie Sherlock for nothing. Stall. That was Chelles only option. What do you mean? That came out sounding curious and not nervous...she hoped. Well...Jason just talked to Eddie, who had a question about a job hes overseeing, and Eddie mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with Riley who is still out in the Golden State with you! Oh, and...by the way...your big bro is not too happy about that fact. Chelle groaned inwardly. She loved her brother, but he drove her CRAZY sometimes. He needed to mind his own frickin' frackin' business! So Riley and Eddie had talked. Riley hadnt mentioned anything about it. But...hmmmm... Maybe that explained his behavior earlier this evening. She was trying to put the timeline together like a puzzle when Katie interrupted her thoughts. You still there? She asked. Her tone indicated that she knew damn well Chelle was still on the line. She was just making a point. Im here. SO...? Whats going on with you and Riley? Katie sounded like she had when they were in middle school, gossiping about a boy. Nothing, nothing. Chelle wanted to open up to Katie. To tell her everything that was going on. To ask her for advice. But now Katie was married to Jason. And that was amazing, Chelle loved Jason to death. But it changed things. Jason was not only Rileys brother, he was also her brother Eddies boss. She didnt need anything that she said getting back to either of them. Really? So then why is Riley still there after he was just supposed to pop in, make sure you

were okay, and then head on home? Chelle didnt really have an answer for that. So she was honest. I dont know. I havent asked him. What have you guys been doing? Mostly sightseeing and just hanging out. Uh huh, sightseeing. Katie didnt sound convinced. We went down to Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39 yesterday and today we went on a day cruise. Then we went over to have dinner at his friends house who had just had a baby. And now were gonna watch a movie. Wow, she said that all in one breath. Thanks for the itinerary. So nothing physical has happened between you two? Katie asked, her tone sounding like Chelle imagined she sounded in the courtroom cross-examining a witness. Not really. Damn! Chelle meant to say no. Why in the name of everything that is good and holy had not really come out of her mouth? Why for the love of freaking Pete could she not just keep things simple? She had minored in psych and, based on some of her studies, she knew that what she had just said was probably a Freudian slip. Subconsciously, she must have wanted to talk to Katie about it, otherwise she would have just denied that anything had happened. Look, Im not going to say anything to Jas, if thats what youre worried about. Katie and Chelle may not have been in contact much over the past decade, but when it came to knowing Chelle inside and out, Katie still had the goods. Fine, we kissed. Chelle blurted out. OOOH I knew it! And then what? Katie asked, wanting to get all the juicy details. Chelle only wished that there were any further details, juicy or otherwise, to be had. And then nothing, she admitted glumly. What? How could there be nothing? He just kissed you and then nothing happened?! Well... Chelle admitted, Actually...I kissed him. Sort of. How do you sort of kiss someone? I mean it wasnt like a kiss kiss, it was more like a peck. And then I just walked away. Chelle thought it sounded bad now that she said it out loud. So he didnt kiss you back? Well, yeah. He kissed me back...I think? I dont know. It happened really fast. When did this happen? Katie was in full information-gathering mode. Yesterday. And you havent talked about it. This was more of a statement than a question. Chelle wouldn't have been surprised if Katie had magically summoned a yellow legal pad into her hands,

upon which she was now recording the pertinent details. Nope, no, not at all, no thank you. Not a conversation I am trying to have. Hey, remember when I kissed you, what did you think about that? No sirree. Well, why did you kiss him? Chelle had generally believed that there was no such thing as stupid question. But Katie had just proved that notion to be incorrect. Are you serious? Yes. Why did you kiss him? Katie repeated. Chelle didnt know if it was built up anxiety from the last few weeks or just built up tension from the last few days, but something inside her snapped. Uuuummm...well, I kissed him because I have been in love with him since middle school. I kissed him because I have never felt about anyone the way I feel about Riley Sloan. No one even comes in a close second! I kissed him because I can barely think of anything other than kissing him when he is within a four block radius of me. No, scratch that - he doesnt even have to be in the same country as I am and its hard not to think about it. I kissed him because I had to. Katie was silent for a moment, and then she said, And all he got out of that was a peck? Chelle burst out laughing and Katie joined her. Katie continued, Okay, so I realize Im playing catch up here, but is it safe to assume that Riley is the unrequited love you were referring to at Sophies bachelorette party? Chelle suddenly remembered. When all of Sophie's bridesmaids had been playing a drinking game where you had to answer questions about your love life, Chelles question had been Have you ever had an unrequited love? - to which Chelle had immediately responded yes. Pssshhhh... Leave it to Katie not to forget that, even though she had gotten massively wasted that night. Lawyers! Chelle figured there was no point in denying it, since she had basically just admitted as much. Yes, that's right. Hes the unrequited love I was talking about. So any chance of him requiting said love? Katies voice sounded much more hopeful than Chelle felt. I dont think so. In fact, now that youve asked me, Im not sure if he did kiss me back. I think that he likes me just fine. You know...as a person. And he might be attracted to me on some level, she wasnt going to say that she had seen and felt physical proof that that was in fact the case some things she wanted to keep private, but I think to him I will always be Eddies baby sister. Well, hmm. Maybe you need to show him that baby sister is all grown up.

It sounds so lascivious when you say it. Chelle said. Katie laughed, What can I say, its a gift. Chelle was so happy to be back in touch with her diamond friend. She had missed her so much over the years. And even if there wasnt a solution to the situation, it felt good to talk about it with Katie. So hows married life? Are you guys sick of each other yet? Chelle asked, knowing full well that Katie and Jason were madly in love and would not be getting tired of each other for as long as they lived. Katie sighed a happy sigh. She said dreamily, Married life is amazing! I honestly never knew life could be this good. I have never been happier, and I think Jas feels the same, and that makes me even happier. Oh, I know Jas feels the same. Hes been in love with you forever. Yeah and I think I always loved him too. It just took me longer to realize it. Hey! Katies voice raised in excitement. Maybe thats the same with you and Riley, only you are like Jason and I am like Riley! Maybe Riley loves you too, he just has to figure it out! Why else would he still be there when he was supposed to fly home three days ago? Chelle didnt want to put the kibosh on Katies enthusiasm. Katie did LOVE to try and play Colombo, and normally no one could refute her deductive abilities. Still, Chelle was fairly certain that his continued stay did not mean anything nearly as significant as Katie was trying to say it did. No, I wish, Chelle responded wryly, If only my life were like a romantic comedy. That would be awesome. But, in reality, I'm pretty sure hes just sticking around because he wants to see the city, and because he's enjoying the fact that for the first time in over a decade he has nowhere that the government has said he has to be. She heard the door shut and looked over her shoulder to see Riley. He had just come in and was holding her favorite movie, Good Will Hunting, in his hand. If Chelle had been on the fence about what she felt about whether or not she was completely in love with him, the fact that he remembered her favorite movie after all these years would have pushed her over to the definitely-yes-madly-in-love side. But she did know that she was in love with him. She didn't need a movie to tell her that. She just didnt know what she was going to do about it. --- ~ --Even if Riley hadnt been confused before he had gone out to get the movie, he certainly

would be now, after overhearing Chelles phone call. He was glad that he had chosen a movie that he had seen several times before. That way, he could use the time that the movie was playing to try and figure out what he was going to do about the conversation Chelle had with Katie. He had chosen the movie because he remembered how many times he and Eddie would come home to find Chelle watching it. She loved it, to the point that she knew every line by heart. When he had stood at the video store, looking through the selections, he wasnt sure what she would be in the mood for. He wanted to pick something he was sure she would enjoy. From the look on her face when he had finally shut the door loudly enough that it would alert her to his presence, he had definitely made the right choice. And now, as he watched Matt Damons character Will grapple with some of the same issues that he himself was struggling with, he thought the choice was even more apropos. It made him feel better in a certain way. Hell, apparently even geniuses were idiots when it came to women. He was in good company. He had overheard Chelle say that she loved him. That she had always loved him. That no one else even ran a close second. Shit. And this was coming from a girl that had been engaged not even two weeks ago. Hell, she hadnt even taken off her engagement ring till that night! So what did that mean? Sure, he had always known that she had a crush on him. But he had always chalked that up to puppy love. Not the real thing. She knew him too well to really love him. And, yes, he had definitely felt the sparks flying between them since he had shown up a few nights ago. But, again...he had just put that firmly in the category of hormones. They were both good looking, single, consenting adults. It made sense that they would be attracted to each other. But never in a million years did Riley believe that Chelle genuinely loved him. And he certainly never let himself examine his own feelings for her too closely! Tommy had said he knew that Riley was in love with her. Tommy knew him better than most. Damn. Was he in love with Rachelle Thomas? He knew he loved Chelle. He knew he would do anything for Chelle. He knew the thought of Chelle being with anyone else made him feel either physically ill or like he had been punched in the gut or, in the worst cases, a really fun combination of both of those two things. But, was he in love with her? Shit. He was. Now the question was - what was he going to do about it?

Did it really change anything? Eddies words popped in his head. I know you, man. Youre not what she needs. She deserves better. Did she? Or could Riley make her happy? He knew he could, physically and even emotionally, in the short term. But over the long term? What could he really offer her? He couldnt give her the white picket fence, 2.5 kids, a dog. That wasnt the guy he was. --- ~ --Chelle was sitting scrunched up in the corner of the couch opposite Riley. She was watching the movie that she loved so much, but she was very aware of Riley. He had been pretty quiet since he came back from the video store. It was making her feel a little on edge. She had finished her popcorn within the first ten minutes, because...well...she ate her feelings, thats why. She needed to relax! She laid her head on the arm of the couch. Trying to watch the movie. Trying to get comfortable. Trying to silence the portion of her brain that was overanalyzing everything that Riley did and said. Talking with Katie had opened up a whole can of worms that Chelle was not sure she was ready to face. Just the fact that she had spoken (out loud!) that she loved Riley was making her feel off balance. And she also kept reminding herself that she had just gotten out of a very serious, very long relationship. What kind of a person just completely forgets the man they were supposed to be walking down the aisle with? She wasnt sure. But what she was sure about was that whatever kind of person that was, she was it. Yep, she admitted to herself, 'completely forgets' was a fair assessment. Because if she was honest, except for the couple of times that they had spoken about David - and then when the woman on the cruise pointed out that she was still wearing her engagement ring - the topic of David had not taken up a single moment of time in her thoughts since Riley had walked through that door. (Well...since he had woken her up from a drunken stupor, technically. She hadn't been aware of it when he'd first walked through the door. But what were details when one was analyzing big picture feelings and being poetic???)

She readjusted her position, trying to lay her head on a pillow. She pulled her feet up on the couch and tucked them beneath her. Come here. Rileys low voice caused a tightening in her belly and a quickening of her heart. She looked up at him. He was reclined in the corner, his arm draped across the back of the couch, his body turned slightly towards her. Open. Inviting. Sexy. Tempting. Holy Catfish! She swallowed. Hard. And moved closer to him. She positioned herself beside him and snuggled up against him leaning her head on his chest. Even through his t-shirt, his body felt hot. She noticed that his breathing was shallower than normal. Her head was moving along with his chest as it rose and fell. Against her cheek, she felt his heart beating in time to her own racing pulse. He smoothed down her hair and, unless she was going crazy and had imagined it, kissed the top of her head. The small gesture caused all of her nerve endings to come alive with passion. Tingling sensations hummed through her entire body. Chelle. Yes. She heard the word she spoke, but it sounded more like a breath than an actual audible response. She didnt even know if he was asking a question yet, but it really didnt matter. If he was asking anything the answer was definitely yes! Did you mean what you said to Katie on the phone? All of the desire that was burning inside of her was instantly squelched as if someone had dropped a bucket of ice water over her. The fire was quickly replaced by dread. And humiliation. And...she didn't even have a word for some of the murky, dark emotions that were flooding her. She was equally as scared to look up at him as she was scared not to. She felt torn, paralyzed. She knew that if she looked into his eyes, she wouldnt be able to lie or make up any kind of an excuse for whatever he had overheard. He would see down to her soul. But on the other hand, she was tired of hiding what she felt for him. Maybe it was good that he knew. At least then they could get it out in the open. Deal with it, no matter what happened. Maybe then she might have some closure. Maybe then she would be able to go two days without cyberstalking him. She thought about asking him what he had actually heard just to clarify what they were discussing, but she wasnt sure she could actually put together a cohesive sentence. So instead she just answered honestly. Yes. She simply stated. After all, regardless of how much he'd heard, she knew that she had meant every word she said to Katie. Whatever he had heard had been the truth.

You did? There was surprise in his voice. Deciding that all those hours she had spent watching Sex and the City should not go to waste, she decided she was going to pull out the old WWSD (What-Would-Samantha-Do) playbook. So she squared her shoulders, sitting up she faced him and repeated, looking straight into his gorgeous hazel eyes, Yes. You love me? he asked, incredulous. Okay, she thought, apparently he was the one who needed clarification. Well, its now or never. Yes. His jaw tightened and a pained look crossed his face. Exhaling loudly through his nose, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, resting it on the back of the couch. Tension radiated from him like heat from a boiler. Well, she thought to herself, battling a small amount of irritation, like Grandpa J always says dont ask the question if you dont want the answer. Then another realization hit her. She understood, suddenly, that this may be the last few moments they would ever spend together. It was very possible he was going to get up and leave. Right now. Tonight. She wasnt sure what he was going to do, but she did feel like the ball was squarely in his court. She sat perfectly still and waited to see what he was going to do next. She tried to wait patiently. She had just made quite a declaration to him. He most likely needed time to process. She just sat there. Didnt move. Didnt speak. Didnt breathe. This was ridiculous. There was only so much a girl could take, no matter how patient she had made up her mind to be! She needed to tell him that she knew he didnt feel the same and not to worry about what he had overheard. It was just girl talk, for God's sake! She wasnt sure if he would buy it. But she definitely didnt want him to feel sorry for her, or worse that he was somehow responsible for her. Like he needed to do anything because she had feelings for him. The thought of being the object of Riley's pity, of being pathetic in his eyes, was so much worse than even the thought him walking out the door, and of her never entering his mind at all again after that. Just as she opened her mouth to begin her let-him-off-the-hook speech he raised his head, his eyes locking with hers. He no longer looked pained, he lookedturned on. OOOOKKKKAAAAYYYY.....

Her entire body responded to his heated gaze, once again burning with arousal. Oh, yeah. She was definitely playing with fire. Tell me. Her mind was swimming and her heart felt as though it might beat right out of her chest. She was having a tough enough time reminding herself to breathe. Following along and participating in the thread of this conversation was too much to ask. What? Her voice was barely above a whisper. A small smile spread across his face. Moving slowly, he closed the gap between them. His lips brushed lightly against hers. He rested his forehead against hers. Did you mean what you said to Katie? he asked again. Hadnt they already been through this? Whatever. She liked where it was headed, so she certainly wouldnt be pointing that out. That wouldn't be a very strategic move! Hell, for all she cared, he could keep asking her that exact same question all night if he stayed this close, and kept looking at her the way that he was! Yes, she repeated her previous answer. Tell me, he growled. OH! Right. Got it. She might be a little slow on the uptake, but she understood now. I love you, she said simply. And although before her voice had been small and quiet, when she spoke those words aloud to Riley, it rang out strong and clear.

Chapter Seventeen
Riley knew he was being selfish. He knew he had no right to ask her to say the words aloud to him when he wouldnt be able to say them back to her. It wasn't because he didnt feel that way - he did. He loved her. He knew that now, beyond any shadow of a doubt. But...he had never said those words to anyone except his family. Never to a woman. Mainly, before now, it had been because he had never felt that way and he wouldnt lie to them. That certainly wasn't the case here, but there were still problems. With Chelle, he couldn't tell her, not because he didn't feel that way about her, but rather because he knew he shouldn't. It wasn't fair to her. He knew that. But he couldnt help it. He wanted to hear her say those words to him. He wanted to feel the power of those words coming from her mouth. He wanted to feel it wash over him like a wave. Other women had declared their love for him and he was reasonably sure that a few of them did, in their own way, love him. But it was different coming from Chelle. It was more. It was everything. He brought his hands up and cupped her face gently. He brushed his lips against hers a second time and heard himself demanding, Tell me again. I love you, she whispered raggedly, and her breathing was labored, her eyes filled with the love that she was expressing to him. He knew he needed to stop. He needed to get up and tell her that this wouldnt work out between them. He needed to get the hell away from her. Instead he just offered her a pathetic excuse for a warning. You shouldnt. A smile spread across her face and he grew harder than he ever thought was humanly possible. She pushed gently on his shoulders and straddled his lap. Too late. I already do. He felt the air leave his lungs in an uncontrollable rush of air. He was in. All in. He couldn't believe it, really, but this was actually happening. Riley slid his hands up the outside of Chelle's luscious thighs, his fingers tightening around her toned legs as they rose higher. Chelle had her head bent down close to Riley's, her fragrant hair forming a curtain that engulfed him in the scent of cinnamon and coconut. He felt the soft strands brushing against his face. It seemed that, with every subtle touch of her silken brown hair against his skin, his arousal was ratcheted to new heights. Chelle sat very still atop his legs, barely moving except for the rapid rise

and fall of her chest, which became more and more exaggerated with the increasing intensity of her breathing. As he watched the perfect mounds of her breasts moving up and down with each breath, he saw the evidence of her intense arousal in her now-hard nipples, which were poking through the thin fabric of her shirt. Riley groaned from deep within his chest. He did not know how much more of this sweet torture he could take before he simply had to touch her, take her, devour every inch of her, drive himself into her... He moaned again. Riley slid his hands quickly the rest of the way up her thighs until they cupped her ass - that sweet, round, perfect ass. Digging his fingers into the fleshy mounds, he pulled her forward so that her hot, moist sex rested directly atop his fast-hardening erection. She gasped with pleasure, her eyes suddenly widening, and he realized that her tender center must already be sensitized. Mmmm...that meant that she was already really turned on. He like that liked that he had the power to take her to that level of arousal so quickly. She slid her arms around his neck and grasped him tightly, whimpering a little as she began to grind her hips against him. God. He could actually feel the intense heat radiating from her core, even through the fabric of the clothing that both of them still wore. Holy crap. If this heaven that he was experiencing was merely a glimpse of the sensation that was to come, when nothing separated their bodies but a thin sheen of sweat, and he was able to drive himself inside of her with no protective barrier of clothing between them...God, it might actually be too much to take! Riley had never felt this strongly about any other woman before. Of course, he had had sex with other women in the past. Plenty of other women. But he'd never felt anything that even came close to comparing to this level of intensity. Of reverence, almost. This was more than mere physical sensation. This felt spiritual, and he couldnt wait any longer to be with her. He simply had to touch her bare skin, had to let his hands and mouth roam over her naked body. He couldn't wait one minute longer. "God, Chelle," he groaned, barely in control of his ragged voice, "I need you. I need you right now." "Yes," her warm breath heavy with lust as she leaned closer to him, resting her forehead against his, "I need you too. God, I need you now, Riley. I've wanted you so bad...so much...for so long." The words she spoke fueled Rileys desire. Consuming need flooded his body. Chelle sitting on his lap fully clothed, telling him how badly she needed and wanted him was the most erotic thing

that Riley had ever experienced. He moved his hands up her slim waist, sliding them underneath her shirt, reveling in the feeling of the warm skin of her torso under his fingertips as he moved them steadily upward, upward...sliding her shirt over her head and feasting his eyes for the first time on her lovely, full, round breasts. Her nipples were even harder than the preview he had gotten through the thin fabric of her shirt, would have led him to imagine. The flickering light from the still-running television cast a delicate glow on her skin in a luminous shade of blue. The cherry red peaks of her nipples stood out prominently at the tips of her gorgeous, plump mounds. He had to taste her, now. Riley's ragged breathing became even deeper and faster as he leaned forward immediately and took the buttons into his mouth, first one and then the other, alternating back and forth quickly between them. It was as if he couldn't decide which he favored - the instant he began to suck on one nipple, he would start to feel the call of the other, and vice versa. As his tongue flicked her sensitive nubs Chelle moaned and trembled. They became even harder under his gentle yet urgent suckling. And while his mouth was busy at work on her gorgeous breasts, his hands roamed over the rest of her body. From the tip of her head to the soles of her feet, he ran his fingertips up and down her back, her side, her arms, her legs cupping her ass, pulling her closer to him, grinding her hot center against his manhood. All the time he did this, he never broke the contact of his hot and insistent mouth from the hard tips of her nipples now, shining with saliva. Chelle whimpered as she writhed under the touch of both his hands and his mouth. She arched her back and bucked her hips. It was clear the things that Riley was making her feel were too intense to be contained by the somewhat restrictive position she was in. He smiled to himself. That could be easily remedied. He wrapped one arm around her waist and slid one hand smoothly underneath her ass as he stood up with one swift motion. She gasped in surprise. "I'm taking you to bed," he growled insistently. She nodded, her eyes fiery with desire. He moved them quickly into the bedroom. He laid her down in the bed. Swiftly and efficiently he pulled off the rest of her clothing. When he was done undressing her, he stood and gazed at her gorgeous naked form. The beautiful swell of her breasts, the feminine way that her hips flared out delicately from her slender, nipped in waist. The round and perfectly shaped taut loveliness of her ass. The graceful length of her legs and, of course, the swollen and shining core of her sex between those long, graceful legs. She began to scoot her way back up the bed, but Riley put a hand out and touched her leg to stop her. "Don't move," he breathed intensely, "I'm still looking at you." Her eyes widened but she didn't protest at the command. In fact, he saw the skin of her chest

flush red with pleasure, her nipples hardened yet another small degree, and the muscles in her belly twitched and tightened. He smiled a small half-smile to himself. He realized that the command he had just given her had resulted in a powerful wave of erotic pleasure rushing through her body, and he had been able to see the physical representations of it. He liked that. He moved a little closer, sliding his hand up her inner thigh. "You liked that just now, when I told you what to do. Didn't you?" he asked, his otherwise authoritative voice trembling slightly with desire. She looked into his eyes and nodded, her eyes bright with the fever of passion, her breath coming in ragged gasps. He smiled again, moving his fingertips ever-so-slowly but ever-so-insistently further up her inner thigh. "You want me to keep telling you what to do. Don't you?" he asked, his sly smile spreading further. He could see her breath catch in her throat, and the fevered intensity in her eyes grew even brighter. She nodded again, this time just a touch more frantically. He leaned down closer to her as his fingers rose yet higher, and he whispered, "Because you know that I know what to do to make you feel good. Right? You know that I know exactly what to do to your body so that you come." Another nod, this one with her head thrown back and her eyes closed tightly against the onslaught of pleasure that his words were causing to course through her body. At that moment, his fingertips came into contact with her wet, slick folds for the first time and she cried out in ecstasy. He felt her lips jump at the first touch of his fingertips, and she spread her legs open eagerly to accept his caresses. As he moved his fingers slowly up and down her slippery folds, he was brought to the very edge of desire by how wet and hot she was. If this was how turned on she was already, he thought to himself breathlessly, he knew that he was going to be able to take her to previously unexplored heights of desire. When he finally let her come, he was going to be able to make her feel like it was an orgasm that was emanating from every cell in her entire body, not just her exploding core. He was now determined to make her feel sensations that she never had before, not in her entire life - and that she never would again, unless he was the one who gave them to her. He felt drunk with the power. With every new thought that passed through his mind, as his fingers caressed Chelle's most intimate erogenous zones, his dick grew harder and harder. Oh, it was going to feel so good when he finally allowed himself to push inside of her. Not

yet, though. First, he had to see to her pleasure. First, he had to drive her insane with ecstasy. Then he could give himself the freedom to indulge his own desires. He dropped to his knees in front of her spread legs, gazing at her beautiful core, and stopped himself just short of pushing her knees further apart. He smiled. No. That wasn't how they were going to do this. He looked up into her eyes. "Chelle," he said in a gravelly yet commanding tone, "spread your legs further apart for me, baby." A whimpering little moan escaped from her, which quickly escalated into a full-throated groan. She spread her legs as far apart as they would go. "That's right," he whispered as he lowered his mouth to her, "That's right, Chelle." He began to flick his tongue over her sensitive nub, tracing the hard tip of it over her lips and swirling around the hard pleasure button again and again. He loved the way her muscles twitched with every small touch, the way her body responded to his hands and his tongue as if it were a welltuned instrument which he had spent a lifetime learning to master. He cupped his hands underneath her and pulled her tighter to his mouth, tasting the sweetness of her arousal and becoming dizzy with the headiness of it all. Suddenly, he sensed a change in the movements of her hips underneath his mouth. They became faster-paced, more frantic. He felt her fingers dig into the back of his head, urging him closer, faster. This was it. He was about to bring her to the heights of ecstasy that, not moments ago, he had been turning himself on by thinking about his capacity to bring her to. He slid one strong hand under her again, pressing her up as tight as he could to his hungry mouth, and used the other hand to slide two fingers inside of her as he expertly employed his tongue to work her pleasure center harder and faster, using every tool at his disposal to stimulate her beautiful body and bring her crashing into orgasm. Then, all of a sudden, he felt her muscles clamp down on his fingers as they moved inside of her, felt her hands ball into fists in his hair, felt her arch her back and thrust her hips forward, and heard her scream, "Oh, Riley! Oh, God! Yes! Oh, Riley, yes, YES!" as she came powerfully. He stroked her gently with his thumb as she came down from her explosive climax, as her breathing slowed, as the sweat dried on her perfect skin, and as she slowly opened her eyes and began to look around, aware again of her surroundings. She sat up and watched him with lusty interest as he quickly stripped off his clothes and took

his trusty condom from his wallet, tearing it from its foil wrapper and sliding it onto his powerful erection. He saw her eyeing his length hungrily, biting her lip and breathing hard as she stared at his impressive manhood. He stepped closer, smiling his enigmatic half-smile again. He ran his fingers softly through her hair. Is this what you want? he asked, observing the way that her eyes never left his stiff erection. She nodded lustily. He took her hand and guided it to his shaft, wrapping her fingers around it tightly. "This?" He clarified, a teasing note in his voice. She nodded, her breathing coming now in short, rapid bursts. Leaning down, placing his lips directly against her ear. "Then lay back," he whispered intensely, "spread your legs, and put me inside you." She groaned with the sheer erotic pleasure of it all and did exactly as he said. She scooted back against the pillows, spread her legs wide, and positioned him at her opening. When he felt that he was properly aligned, he thrust into her, all of the power of the pent-up desire that he had been shoving down for the past couple of days hell, maybe for the past couple of years powering that first thrust. When he was buried in her up to the hilt, he paused for a moment to enjoy the sensation of being buried within her, of being enfolded in her soft snug warmth. It was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. It went so far beyond physical sensation that the physical sensation itself although intensely pleasurable almost seemed beside the point. The most overpowering thing about the whole encounter was the fact that it was happening with Chelle a fact that seemed almost beyond belief. Her name was continually playing through his head, "Chelle, Chelle, Chelle, Chelle..." almost like he had to keep repeating it to remind himself that this was real. That he was actually making love to Chelle. As he moved in and out of her, in and out, in and out, he reveled in listening to her small moans and whimpers of delight. In fact, he focused more on those than on his own pleasure, a fact which shocked him immensely. He was someone who loved the physical intensity of sex lived for it, in many ways but had never really been moved by the emotional aspect of it. Now, here, with Chelle, that was all he could think about. He felt her inner walls spasm around his rock hard shaft. Her body began to shake as her hips bucked against his. Riley, Riley, oh my God, Im gonnacomeagain! She gasped as her arms tighten around his neck. He felt tremors running through her entire body as she clung to him desperately.

As he felt himself nearing climax, he pulled back from where he had buried his face in her neck, positioning himself directly above her. Chelle, he commanded hoarsely, Open your eyes. Look at me. Look into my eyes. She did, her expressive almond brown eyes gazing directly into his as the spasms of climax overtook him. They both rode out the incredible, intense physical sensations, looking into each others eyes the entire time. It was amazing. As long as he had lived up to this point, he had never felt as connected to another human being. And as long as he was going to live in the future, he didn't think that he ever would again.

Chapter Eighteen
Chelle awoke, warm and toasty in bed, to the smell of bacon and coffee. She stretched her hands over her head and smiled. She felt refreshed, renewed, happy. Last night was perfect. She enjoyed this elated feeling for just a moment before her mind started racing with the possibilities of what last night meant. What would the ramifications be? She didnt know if things would be weird between her and Riley now. Chelle had never had a one-night-stand before. It's not that she had some kind of moral objection to them. She just wasnt that girl - the one who could be carefree and wild. She had only ever been intimate with people that she was in a committed relationship with. But, hey, she thought wryly, look where that got me. Plus, she had known Riley forever. Did it really count as a one-night-stand? Hmm, maybe she should Google it. No, wait. She was overthinking this. Overanalyzing was her main flaw! She needed to summon her inner Samantha. She and Riley had fun last night. They were both adults. She just needed to go out there with an air of sophistication and be very casual about the whole thing. She rose out of bed, grabbed Rileys shirt and pulled it over her head. It fell to just above her knee. She walked over to the full length mirror and looked at herself. Her hair was a mess and she was swimming in his shirt. But there was definitely a glow about her. She had always wondered if people really did have a morning-after-sex-glow. She had never experienced it. Although, in all fairness, her experience was somewhat limited. But one night with Riley and she sure as heck had it! Excitement filled her. She wanted to jump up and down, clapping her hands and squealing...but she didnt really think that would read mature experienced woman so she refrained. She needed to pull herself together before she went out there and faced the music...or the bacon, in this case. She hoped that Riley wasnt regretting last night. Well, only one way to find out. She took a deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Opening the bedroom door, she padded barefoot across the wooden floor to the kitchen. Riley was standing at the stove in sweats that hung dangerously low. He stood there, sans shirt, and the muscles in his back rippled as he flipped the bacon. Mmmm..... She heard a sound of sheer, unadulterated appreciation escape from deep inside of her. She

slapped a hand over her mouth just as Riley turned, now alerted to her presence. A small lopsided grin was the only acknowledgment he made of her reaction to him. Good morning, Sleeping Beauty, he said as he turned and finished removing the last of the bacon from the pan and transferred it to the plate beside the stove. Morning. Chelle wasnt sure what to do. A small voice inside her head piped up - act natural, for God's sake! Yes! Good. She could do that. Just act natural, she repeated to herself as she walked into the kitchen to get some OJ from the fridge. She opened the fridge, removed the OJ, placed it on the counter and closed the fridge. Okay, so far so good, she thought. She turned and opened the cabinet that held the cups. Reaching high over her head she felt Riley behind her. She leaned back into him, feeling his solid chest at her back. Unlike the first morning after he had arrived, when she had had to fight the instinct to melt against him, now she simply let herself luxuriate in the warmth and solidness of his body. She felt his erection, rock hard, pressed against her back. He wrapped one arm around her waist. Looking down she saw his large hand spread across her belly and the sight of it was a serious turn-on. With his other hand he brushed her hair to one side, revealing her neck. She instinctively tilted her head to give him better access. His lips moved to her sensitive skin and she felt a ripple of chills rush throughout her entire body. Even the tiny hairs on her arm were standing up. He kissed her softly at first, then she felt his mouth open as his tongue licked from the base of her neck to right below her ear. She felt his teeth as he bit the tender skin there. The hot, stinging sensation shot right down to her sex. She heard herself gasp from sheer pleasure. He alternated kissing, licking, and biting up and down her neck. She began writhing from the sweet ecstasy that was coursing through her. Her knees felt wobbly and her legs felt shaky. She melted against him, desire pulsing through her. Do you remember the morning I got here? His ragged voice caused goosebumps to form on her arm. Yes, she whispered throatily. Do you know how bad I wanted to touch you then? His words caused pleasure to build inside of her like a balloon about to burst. Do you know how bad I want you to touch me now? she said, her voice coming out in a taut, strangled gasp. He groaned as he slipped his hand between her legs. She felt the pressure of his fingers

rubbing her through her panties. Her body tensed at the overwhelming sensations his touch was causing. Relax, Chelle. Open your legs for me, he commanded gently. She did as he asked and he slipped his hand inside her panties. She could feel the rough pad of his fingertips as he brushed over her sensitive nub, lightly at first, and then with more pressure before his fingers traveled lower. He took his time, gliding over her wet folds, before he slipped one finger inside of her. He moaned from deep inside his chest. She felt the vibration against her back. Damn, you feel so good, baby. So tight around my finger. His bold words caused her legs to give out on her and she reached up and grabbed onto his arms. His biceps flexed beneath her hands as she anchored herself to him. She dug her fingers into his arms as she held on for dear life, riding out the incredible pleasure his fingers were giving her. Then suddenly everything stopped. Rileys his entire body stilled. He removed his hand and she heard him curse under his breath. She had no idea what was going on. She felt engulfed in a cloud of confusion, her legs trembling like Jello, her breath coming fast in short gasps. She was just about to ask Riley what in the heck was going on when she heard it. A loud knocking on the door. Its Randall, Chelle! She heard Katies landlord yell. Need to get into the apartment, hon. Open up! Chelle began to move to the front door, but Riley beat her to it. He was at the front door before she even made it out of the kitchen. He glanced back over his shoulder before opening the door, You might want to put some pants on. Sounds like hes coming in. She looked down at herself still feeling a little shell-shocked and saw that she was only wearing Rileys shirt. Good idea, she said as she sprinted to the bedroom. She had just closed the door when she heard the two men talking. She quickly pulled on a pair of jeans and pulled her hair up into a ponytail. When she joined the men in the kitchen she saw that Randall was under the sink and Riley (who she saw had thrown on a shirt) was standing, arms crossed, with a not-so-happy look on his face. I really dont mind taking a look. Oh, nonsense, son - this is my job! She heard Randall's cheerful voice from below the sink. Whats going on? She asked.

Randalls head popped up, Well now, Mrs. Partridge was sittin' down to have her morning coffee. She takes it black, no sugar, no milk. And, what do you know? Just as she was about to take her first sip, doggone water splashed into it. She looked up and, lo and behold, it was coming from the ceiling above her head! Now, shes right below you in 214. So, best as I can put together, you got quite a leak from this here pipe. Chelle looked up at Riley, who still wore his not-so-happy frown. Now, dont mind me! You kids go on with what you were doin', Randall said as he climbed back under the sink. Chelle immediately felt her cheeks get heated and her eyes shot to Riley, who now wore a crooked smile. He waggled his eyebrows up and down and Chelle laughed. She loved this playful, happy side of Riley. She didnt think many people saw that side of him and she felt grateful that she was able to. This shouldnt take more'n a couple of hours, kids, Randall bellowed. Chelles eyes widened and Rileys head fell back in frustration. --- ~ --Riley had been pretty upset when Randall and the leaky sink foiled his plans to keep Chelle naked and in bed all day. But now, he had to admit, he was having a good time. After they had eaten breakfast and Randall informed them the fix would most likely take up the lions share of the day, they decided to get out of there and get some air. When Riley asked Chelle if there was anything she wanted to do, her eyes lit up and she said there was one thing that she had always wanted to do, but had put off so far because she hadn't wanted to do it alone. So now, here they were, riding their bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge. Chelle was in front of him and he had to say - he was enjoying the view. She would look over her shoulder every once in a while and flash him her amazing smile. Every time she did his heart cracked open just a little more. He knew that they should probably talk about last night. He knew that she needed to know where he stood. He knew that the last thing he would ever want to do is lead her on. His head was still trying to convince him that things would never work out with her. But after last night, he really wasnt sure how he could ever walk away from her. He loved her and she loved him. He knew that without a shadow of a doubt. Maybe a part of him had always loved her. But he was a realist and knew that love didnt solve everything. His dad had loved his mom, and look how that had turned out. He had ended up alone, raising five boys. He didnt want to end up like his dad.

His mom had loved him and his brothers and she still left. Just like he had loved his Dad and brothers, but the first chance he saw, he had gotten the hell out of Dodge. Some people just werent cut out for a family and all that goes with it. His mom was one of those people. Riley had always believed that he was too. But, Chelle definitely made him wish that he wasnt. He wished he could be her forever. He knew the truth though. He was damaged. She was perfect. She deserved better. They ended up back at Crissy Field, and together they laid out a blanket with all of the picnic stuff they had picked up once they had decided what their field trip would be for the day. They chatted while they ate, mainly about what the past years that they had been apart had been filled with. Riley kept things light as he told her about his time in the military. He didnt like to let his mind go to the disturbing places he had been and things he had seen. She told him about nursing school and moving back to Harpers Crossing. She really loved that town and the people that lived in it. Sadly, Riley did not share in her warm feelings for either. His experience there had not been quite as happy as hers had. After they finished eating they sat in comfortable silence as they looked over the bay. The water was shining. There was a breeze blowing and he was perfectly content just watching Chelle as she sat beside him. She was breathtakingly beautiful. He could get used to this, to spending his days with her, and - more importantly - his nights. He had to remind himself harshly that that wasnt going to happen. They needed to talk. He still felt bad about that moment last night when he had asked her to tell him how she felt. He knew it was wrong, he had known it even as he had done it, but he couldn't stop himself. And now, no matter what transpired in the future, he would always have the memory of her saying those sweet words to him. He wasnt sure what to say to her. He just needed her to know where his stood. He didnt want to leave any room for confusion or pain when he walked away. And, make no mistake, he would walk away. This time together had been amazing, but there wasnt a future here. Chelle, we need to talk. She didnt look up at him, just quietly said, No. He didnt really know how to respond to that. Should he just come back with 'Yes' or...? He hesitated, not sure what the correct tactic was. Before he could figure it out, though, she explained. I just want this day. Just one more day. Okay? She did look up at him then, and he saw in her eyes that she knew. She knew this was all it could be. He nodded.

I love people watching, she said, glancing away. Honestly, he hadnt really even noticed that there were other people around them. It felt like they were in their own little world whenever they were together. He looked up and saw an older couple walking hand in hand down the pedestrian path. He saw a young father playing catch with his son on the grassy area to their left. There was a woman on a bench down by the water, reading, and a young couple walked their golden retriever puppy on the sandy beach area. She nodded her head towards the older couple strolling together. Okay, she challenged with a smile, whats the story? Nostalgia washed over him. He had completely forgotten that they used to play whats the story when they were kids down at the Riverwalk. Thats Bernie and Nancy, he said, getting into the spirit of the game, They just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They were never able to have children due to an unfortunate incident that Bernie suffered while playing baseball in his youth. Suffice it to say, it involved a bat and his junk. He doesn't like to talk about it. Junk? Really? Chelle smiled and shook her head. I said he doesn't like to talk about it, Riley replied, doing his best to keep a straight face and succeeding except for the small smile that tugged at the edges of his mouth. Miles and Velma, both widowed, met online. Their kids made their respective profiles. This is their first date. She looked proud of herself. He tilted his head, giving her a knowing wink. Mines better. She sighed in defeat, I know, yours always were. You have a good imagination. He leaned forward, I wanted to put that imagination to good use this morning before we were interrupted. A blush quickly rose on her cheeks. He loved how she was always blushing around him. He loved seeing the physical evidence of how she responded to him. Well, we still have tonight. She smiled as she got up and swung her leg over the side of her bike. His pants were suddenly very tight, and it occurred to him that he had no idea how in the hell he was going to ride a bike with a raging hard-on. --- ~ --Chelle pulled the chicken out of the oven and flipped it before returning it and closing the

oven door. She set the timer for another 15 minutes. She stirred the rice as she checked on the veggies she was steaming. She wasnt the greatest cook, but Riley had made her breakfast every day that he had been there and she wanted to return the favor. She knew that this afternoon, when she had put off their talk, she was only delaying the inevitable. But, why not put it off? She already knew she wasnt going to like what he had to say. She just didnt want things to be awkward between them. She didnt want him to feel like he had to let her down easy. She wouldnt be able to stand it if she saw a look of pity in his eyes. Chelle didnt want to be 'that girl' to him. The one that got attached. The one who got clingy. The one he would have to avoid from then on. She had seen it happen time and time again with women and her brother Eddie. He hadnt wanted anything serious since Emilys mom Lacey had left. He had tried to date casually, but women always took it for more than what it was. She had seen him try and let them down easy, to try to be kind but firm. That worked about eighty percent of the time. But, with the other twenty percent, he had to end up being downright cruel, or to just try and avoid them at all costs. There was no other way, because they simply refused to get a clue! She didnt want to have that talk with Riley. WWSD (What Would Samantha Do), hmm? Thats it, she thought! Samantha would probably let him off the hook first, beat him to the punch. Proactive was always better than reactive, right? She was sure she had read that somewhere. Good, so the plan was to make sure that Riley knew that she was aware of the situation, which was - this was just for fun. Temporary. Nothing serious. She may have to backpedal a little, since she had told him several times the night before (at his insistence, but whatever!) that she loved him. Whoops! But, hey. He probably wouldnt bring that up. He was a guy! If there was one thing you could count on a guy for, it was to be willing to gloss over an emotionally charged topic if it meant shortening or avoiding an uncomfortable, intense conversation. So she was sure that they could just sweep the whole 'I love you' thing under the rug. Right?

Chapter Nineteen
Chelle sat across from Riley trying to build up the courage to have The Talk. This is amazing, He took another bite of the chicken, You didnt have to do this. I wanted to. She smiled and she immediately saw that look he got in his eye whenever she smiled. She liked that look. She was going to miss that look. Okay, talk time! Just start talking, she told herself. There was one tiny problem with that...she had no idea what to say. What did she remember Eddie saying to women? He told them he didnt have room in his life for someone other than Emily. Yeah, well that wouldnt work for obvious reasons. He sometimes reminded them that he had told them he didnt want anything serious before they had ever hooked up the first time. Well, damn. Also not going to work, since she (like an idiot) had professed her love to him before they hooked up. At times, he had also used the good ole faithful not ready for a relationship. Now, that one might actually get some traction. She had just gotten out of a serious relationship. It would make sense that she wasn't ready to just jump right into another one. Yeah. That could actually work. DAMMIT! Why did this have to be so hard? Why couldnt she just tell the truth? You know...say something like, Sure Im in love with you, but its no biggie! I know that you dont feel the same, and that's cool. But, here's the thing - I really like having sex with you...SOOOO...this friends-with-benefits thing is just fine and dandy with me. If only life were that simple. I can practically hear the wheels churning. Whats going on in that pretty little head of yours? Nothing. She smiled to try to deflect. No way was she going to fess up that she had been thinking about them. Chelle. His tone made it very clear that he was not buying what she was laying down. What? she asked innocently. I think we need to talk. Crap, he beat her to it. Well, since she couldnt come up with anything to say anyway, maybe she didn't even deserve to go first. She might as well hear him out. Pssshhh.... even though she would bet her last dollar she was not going to like what he said. She looked up into his hazel eyesnope, not one little bit. I care a lot about you Not a good start! She wanted to crawl under the table and hide.

I want you to know that I wish things were different God, she wanted to throw up. I wish I could be what you need, what you deserve Whoa, she needed to stop this train and fast. It was headed straight into Humiliation Station and Chelle did not plan to still be riding it when it pulled in. Think, think, think! Perfect! WWSD to the rescue! What I need is just this. No strings. No expectations. I just want to enjoy our time together while were here. Please please let it be at least a few more days, she said to herself. She continued, When I go home, I return to reality. And reality is that in Harpers Crossing, we are just old friends. Youre my brothers best friend. Nothing more, nothing less. This is my break from reality. You are my break from reality. Thats what I need. Riley was quiet. He looked as though he was battling with what she was saying. He didnt look quite convinced that she was telling the truth. She was so ready for this conversation to be over! She just wanted him to drop it. Not knowing what else to do, she stood and cleared the plates. As soon as she did, Riley stood and started clearing the rest of the table. He looked conflicted. She hated seeing him like that. He had had enough conflict in his life. She wanted him to be able to look back on these few days they had spent together with nothing but fondness. Nothing but happy - or, better yet, HOT - memories. A bell went off in her head. Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! Thats exactly what she needed to do! Make more memories of the HOT variety. She could do this. She could be bold. She stripped out of her shirt and began walking towards the bedroom door while unbuttoning her pants. She heard nothing but absolute silence behind her as he stopped clearing the table. She could feel his eyes on her. Im gonna take a shower, care to join me? She didnt look back, her heart was pounding out of her chest. She heard the clatter of plates being dropped back on the table, and then Riley's footsteps as he moved to follow. She breathed a sigh of relief as she realized that, in fact, this was going to happen after all. She really didn't want to leave things with Riley on this note of angst. She wanted to experience at least one last night of bone-shattering ecstasy. She wanted to put just one more memory of pleasure, of their bodies connecting, into her consciousness before this beautiful time came to an end.

In addition to that, she felt pretty proud of herself. During their previous encounter (well, encounters plural, if you wanted to get technical it was four times!) Riley had been the one driving things. Now she was taking the initiative, and she liked the little rush of excitement it gave her. She had never thought of herself as a particularly sensual person before, or a particularly sultry one. She'd never thought of herself as being especially sexy, per se. It wasn't that she didn't have a good idea of how she looked she realized she was reasonably attractive. She didn't have low self-esteem or anything she liked her face, and she liked her body. It was just that she had never thought of herself as one of those women that exuded sex appeal. Some women just did, it poured off of them effortlessly, in waves. Like her friend Amber that girl walked into the room, and even 90-year-old guys dropped their jaws to the ground and said, Hubba hubba. Chelle had always kinda wished she was that way. It was why Samantha was her favorite one on Sex and the City! But, since she was far more of a Charlotte in real life, she had resigned herself to the fact that it was never going to happen. She was always going to be the pretty one, the cute one but never the sexy one. But now With Riley she felt like the sexiest woman that had ever lived. She did feel it coming off of her in waves. It was like a power that she stepped into, like a certain magic that she was only able to channel when he was in the room. It was the way that he looked at her, she decided. It was a hunger in his eyes as they raked over her body. It was the fact that, when Riley looked at her, he thought about sex - she could read the unabashed lust in his eyes. The fact that she saw a sexy woman reflected back in his eyes when he looked at her made her feel like that sexy woman - and she was enjoying playing around a little bit with that knowledge! When she walked into the bathroom, she stepped slowly and seductively over to the shower and turned it on, adjusting the water to be as hot as she could stand it. She turned to Riley and saw that he was lounging in the doorway, one shoulder leaned against the jamb, watching her with undisguised carnal interest. She smiled as she released the ponytail holder that had been keeping her hair in place. As her hair began to fall to her shoulders she shook it loose. Riley remained leaning casually against the doorway, seemingly unaffected, but when her eyes traveled down his body, she could see she had a big effect on his lower region. Her smile widened as she slowly peeled off the rest of her clothing and stepped into the shower, immediately positioning herself underneath the powerful spray of hot water, wetting down her hair and letting the steaming droplets stream over her skin. She slowly ran her hands back through her newly wet hair and down the length of her body,

enjoying watching Riley watch her. His undivided attention and hungry gaze was turning her on more than she ever thought was possible. His eyes greedily roamed the length of her body before meeting hers, when their eyes locked she asked playfully, "Im glad youre enjoying the show but are you going to join me?" She didn't need to ask him twice. Without a word, he stripped down and had a condom on faster than she would've imagined possible. Unlike her sensual striptease, his movements as he disrobed were purely practical. He was aiming for speed, not style. Still, even though he was not calculating his movements to be seductive, she still got a pretty intense erotic charge from watching each piece of clothing being pulled from his body, revealing his hard and muscular physique beneath. He was perfection. As she watched him roll the condom onto his erection, she did not realize that a groan of anticipation had actually escaped from her throat until she saw him looking up at her, a wicked smile on his lips. Then, and only then, did she become aware enough of her surroundings to hear the sound that she was making. Until that point, she had been so caught up in the haze of lust that the sight of his body created in her mind that she might not even have noticed if they had been engulfed in one of San Francisco's famous earthquakes. She might have just mistaken it for the quaking that the sight of Riley's naked body caused inside of her. She couldn't help it! He was just so sexy, and the charge between them was so electric, that when she saw his bulging erection all she could think about was him being inside of her, thrusting into her again and again, until she screamed with release. The image was powerful, it caused a physical reaction in her that she had not even been aware of, and could not control. She smiled. The difference between this sex-image of Riley Sloan that flashed through her brain and the majority of the rest of the thousands that had proceeded it over the course of the years was that this one was about to really be happening! Riley moved over to the shower and stepped into it with her. He pulled the curtain closed behind him, creating a tiny, intimate fantasy world that was only inhabited by the two of them. He put his hands on her waist, pulling her closer to him. He looked into her eyes and teased, "I didn't think you needed a shower to get you wet. I thought I did a pretty good job of that last night." The erotically charged words caused her to whimper, and she couldn't think of a response. What was it about Riley Sloan and sex that rendered her speechless? She merely looked back up into his eyes, biting her lower lip to deal with the sudden rush of arousal that was threatening to overwhelm her. Apparently, that gesture worked like magic on him, though, because all of a sudden he became very intense. He put his hands around her face, thumbs stroking her cheeks, and said intensely, "My God, Chelle, you're so sexy...fuck...the water running down your naked body...you're so beautiful..."

With that, she felt herself being spun around and pressed up against the tile wall of the shower. WHOA! She loved it when he took control of her body like that. It made her feel so tiny, so vulnerable, so utterly protected by his strength, power, and agility. She felt him step up behind her, his hard body pressing against the length of her soft one, mingling together under the hot stream of water. He ran his hands up her slick torso, coming to rest on her breasts, where his thumbs authoritatively flicked her hard nipples as her back pressed into his chest. She snaked one arm behind his neck, and pressed the other one against the wall to steady herself. Every time his thumb flicked one of the hard nubs of her nipples, she felt the corresponding earthquake down in her center. God, she was aching for him, she was throbbing. She needed him inside her! Please, Riley... she begged breathlessly, I need...I need you... Keeping one hand firmly on her sensitized breast, never leaving the manipulation of her nipple for an instant, Riley slid the other hand down her belly and into the soft, hot folds of her center. He flicked her pleasure button, then swirled his fingers around it in circles, causing her knees to buckle. Luckily, since she was pressed up against Riley, she remained upright. This? he whispered in her ear, pretending ignorance, Is this the part of you that needs me? Chelle groaned from deep within, shivers of pleasure jolting through her from both areas of her body that Riley was manipulating. She wanted to answer him, dammit! She wanted to do the clever-cute-sex-banter thing with him! She wanted him to think of her as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman his sexual equal. But, hell...she couldn't formulate a thought to save her life. Banter? Completely beyond her. Clever-Cute-Sex-Banter? Get real. All she managed to squeak out was, Yes...inside...please... as her body melted further into his pleasure-giving fingers. I can do that, he teased, his voice hoarse, You just had to ask. Now spread your legs a little more, and tilt your hips back...there you go...just like that. Oh, LORD! The instructions he was giving her, logistical in nature though they might be, were making her feel like she was going to explode in an orgasm right then and there, before he was even inside of her. As his rock hard length slowly entered her she felt waves of pleasure from her center rolling outward to her extremities, and even saw small explosions of light behind her eyelids. Phewwww! She could experience this until the day that she died and never get tired of it!

The truth was, when Riley was inside of her, she felt whole. Full. Connected in a way that she had never felt before. She didn't think that this feeling could be explained entirely by physical chemistry. In fact, she was fairly sure of that fact. The feeling was, if she was not mistaken, the physical manifestation of their souls mingling. Sex with Riley was more powerful for Chelle than any drug she could imagine ever ingesting. Oh, man, though...if this was what drugs felt like, she could certainly see why people had a hard time kicking them! Riley began to move his hand upward, away from where it was massaging her pleasure center, his fingers exploring her body. Chelle did something that was, for her, uncharacteristically bold. She reached down, grabbed his wrist, and moved his hand back down. She felt, more than heard, the growl of pleasure that rumbled deep in Riley's chest. He buried his face in the back of her neck. You want me to keep touching you there while I'm inside of you? he whispered raggedly. She nodded furiously. There was that whole 'can't think of words' thing, rearing its ugly head again. Riley groaned as he slid his hand back down and began to move his fingers in time with the rhythm that he was creating by pumping in and out of her. Oh, it was delicious! Chelle didn't know how long she could hold off before exploding with pleasure around his fingers and his erection, but she wanted to try and prolong it more than she had ever wanted anything in her life. She needed to extend this fierce pleasure spiraling through her for as long as humanly possible. She managed to hold out for what somehow felt like an eternity and felt like mere seconds, simultaneously. If she had been forced to guess the amount of time that she had stood there, pressed up by Riley's body against the wall of the shower, enjoying the consuming pleasures that his body was giving her...she honestly would not have known whether to say a minute or an hour. When she could no longer control her body's inexorable climb toward climax, she felt the explosions beginning at her core and spreading outward through her torso and continuing to the tips of her fingers and toes. If Riley did not have her so securely pinned up against the wall of the shower, she surely would have collapsed to the ceramic floor as her entire body quaked and shuddered with the wickedly intense orgasm that Riley was giving her. The pleasure was mind-blowing. She thought that, of everything that her body was experiencing every tiny sensation that contributed to the overload of ecstasy that was roaring through her body her very favorite part was the way that she felt completely encircled by Riley's strength and warmth. She could feel his body pressed up against the length of her, his strong arm around her, holding her up. She had never felt so completely secure, so safe, so protected, so...free.

Yes, it was as if the base foundation of safety and comfort that Riley's strong, encircling arms gave her provided her with the freedom to let her body feel anything that she was willing to let it. She had certainly never experienced this loss of control with anyone else before! She knew that it had to be because of more than just the pure chemistry she shared with Riley, or even her lifelong crush. It was because, with Riley, she felt safe in losing all control, letting everything go. She felt secure in letting herself tumble skyward, head over heels, when he launched her into stratospheres of pleasure because she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would be there to catch her when she tumbled back down to earth. As she felt herself slowly descending now, she became aware of little details one by one. The steaming pressure of the water streaming down her body. The slick, hard surface of the tile under her palm. The solidness of the ceramic shower floor under her feet. The final sensation that entered her consciousness was the fact that Riley was still inside of her, fully erect, moving slowly, gently, ever so slightly. He was guiding her back down to earth. She turned her head to look back into his eyes. You didn't...? He shook his head, and planted kisses on her forehead, her cheek, the side of her mouth. I wanted to enjoy watching you. I wanted to see every detail, commit it to memory, he whispered. She closed her eyes against the onslaught of pure pleasure that his words caused to course through her body. Only Riley could bring her to the brink with nothing more than a few well-chosen words. Without taking time to give it much thought, she wriggled away from him, turned around, and dropped to her knees in front of him. She pulled off his condom and tossed it aside. She looked up and into his eyes, she smiled and said, in a voice that was much stronger and clearer than she would have thought that she was capable of, Well, then. I think that you deserve a reward. With that, she took him into her mouth, using her tongue to trace the outline of his shaft as she moved her head up and down on his powerful erection. She felt his fingers tangling in her wet hair, heard him groan from deep inside as her mouth did its work. Hmmmm...she thought. Riley's really onto something with this whole observing-the-otherperson-in-the-throes-of-ecstasy thing! It's pretty awesome, I could get used to it! She felt power surging through her like an electric current as she reveled in her ability to give Riley pleasure. God, if she were able to make him feel even a tenth as good as he had made her feel, she would be happy with that! She felt Riley's muscles begin to twitch more violently against her fingers and lips and realized that he was going to come. He tried to guide her head away, gasping out a warning, but

Chelle didn't want a warning. She wanted every part of him. She wanted to maintain her connection with him until the end, to use her mouth to give him every last drop of pleasure that she could until he exploded within her. As Riley reached climax, Chelle could tell that he was lost in the moment, completely engrossed. It was a revelation to her, to see someone as controlled as Riley normally was lose all conscious control in the heat of climax. She could get used to seeing that, and knowing that she was the cause of it yeah, she could definitely get used to that! She stopped herself just short of that line of thinking, giving herself a quick and harsh reminder that getting used to anything where Riley was concerned was not an option. The truth was, she needed to enjoy this little interlude for what it was, pack the memories away to be able to look back on and smile when she was old and gray, and leave it at that. Hmmmm.... Why was she increasingly beginning to suspect that it was going to be anything but that simple?

Chapter Twenty
The first thing Riley was aware of in the morning was feeling Chelle begin to leave the warm circle of his embrace. Although he was only semi-conscious, he felt his arms automatically tighten around her. He loved waking up with her beside him. She patted his hand, I gotta get my phone, its been ringing non-stop for the last hour. He begrudgingly let her go. He looked at the clock beside the bed, it read 9:30 a.m. He watched her cute little rear as she bent over and got her phone out of her purse. He felt himself get hard instantly. As she looked down at her phone her brow furrowed, Holy cow, eight missed calls. She hit a button that he was assuming gave her access to her voicemails. Her face grew tight as she listened. She took the phone from her ear and pressed another button, then replaced the phone against her ear. She repeated this several times before Riley asked, Is everything okay? She didnt answer. She listened for a few more minutes before sighing and placing a call. Hey, Vickey. Yeah, I got your messages. I'll check on flights. Hopefully I will be able to get home today. Yes, its been great. Okay, Ill shoot you a text and let you know when I can be there. No its fine. Honestly. Yep, talk soon. Chelle replaced the phone in her purse and started picking her clothes up off the floor, completely ignoring him. He didnt want to pry, but it seemed that if he was going to find out what was going on, he was going to have to. Who was that? My supervisor, Her tone sounded flat, Three nurses are out with the flu and the floor is full. She pulled on her shirt and underwear and sat at the desk as she turned on her laptop computer. Lots of people having babies. Ive gotta get the next flight home. Back to reality. He repeated the words that she had used the night before. They caused a sharp pain in his chest. Yep. She said curtly nodding her head, just once. He stood and pulled on his shorts, crossing to where she was sitting at the desk. Why dont you start getting packed up, Ill take care of getting us home. She shook her head and continued typing away, going from site to site, looking for flights. No

thanks, I can book my own flight. She sounded irritated by his request. He didnt want to be the cause of her becoming any more upset than she already was. Honestly, he just wanted to take care of this for her. He put his arm on her shoulder and he felt her tense under his touch. He removed his hand. He did his best to make his tone come across as reasonable, without seeming patronizing. He just wanted her to relax and listen. Look I have to get a flight anyway, and you have a lot more stuff to pack up than me. So let me take care of the flights and you get ready to go. She slumped in her chair, Fine, but Ill pay you back for the ticket. He wasnt going to argue that point with her now, but there was no way in hell that was going to happen. He closed his eyes sadly as reality began to truly hit home. He had just spent the last three days in a fantasy. They had been the best three days of his life. Now, he was buying his own plane ticket straight back to reality, and it was the last place he wanted to go. She stood and quickly went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her and clicking the lock. Clearly he wasnt invited. He heard the water start and flashes from the night before started popping into his head. How drastically things had changed in less than twenty-four hours. --- ~ --Just as he was putting the finishing touches on breakfast, he heard the bedroom door open. Chelle walked out, her carry-on draped over her shoulder, rolling a large suitcase behind her. She didnt look up at him, didnt smile, but merely placed her luggage by the front door. When she joined him in the kitchen area, she still looked one hundred percent closed off. The do not disturb sign was firmly in place. He wanted to grab her and kiss her until she melted. He wanted to pick her up and take her back to the bedroom, strip her out of her clothes and toss her on the bed. And he wanted to keep her there, naked and smiling. But he couldnt do that. That was over. They were over. Any luck? She asked as she straightened up some things in the kitchen. Not that it needed it. She just seemed determined not to look at him. We fly out of SFO in three hours. He said. Great. Well, we should probably get going. Traffic is crazy in this city. We have enough time to eat. Do you want OJ or coffee? He wanted his Chelle back. Even on the day he had arrived, after a week of doing nothing but

eating and drinking alone, she had seemed happier than the girl who was standing in front of him now. Neither, and Im not hungry. Im gonna call a cab. I already did. It'll be here in twenty minutes. He couldnt help himself, he had to touch her, even though she was clearly giving signals that she wanted to be left alone. He stepped closer to her, cautiously testing the waters, and she raised her face to him. She looked into his eyes for the first time since she had picked up her phone that morning. He saw tears brimming, and her eyes were slightly puffy, making him think she had just spent the last hour crying. The sight made him feel like someone had kicked him in the balls. Without waiting for permission he grabbed her and pulled her into his arms. He held her tightly. She felt good there, perfect. It seemed like thats what his arms were created for, to hold her. Finally, she relaxed and wrapped her arms around him. He let out a breath he hadnt even known he had been holding in. I just dont want to go yet, she said quietly, her voice barely above a whisper. I know. I dont either. He heard the need, the desperation coming through in his own voice. She looked up at him. Without even thinking about it, he kissed her. Not to comfort her, not to try and make it better. No, he kissed her because he was a selfish prick and he needed to feel her lips, to taste her. He poured every ounce of unspoken emotion he had for her into that kiss. All too soon she pulled away and then after a beat she stepped away, out of his arms. He felt the loss immediately. Im gonna go let Randall and Mrs. Winders know that Im leaving. Ill meet you downstairs at the cab. Can you make sure everything is shut off and locked up? She didnt wait for his answer. Just like that, she was out the door. --- ~ --Chelle felt a teeny-tiny bit bad about the foul mood that had taken up residence and was steadily worsening. She had tried to shake it, but it didnt seem like it would be leaving any time soon. She attempted to reason with her own foul temper. Hey, she told herself, it isnt Rileys fault that you have to go back to work. It isnt Rileys fault that your time in San Francisco is over. It certainly isnt Rileys fault that you're madly in love with him! She sighed. She recognized the logic in all of that. So why was she was giving him the silent treatment? Why was she avoiding touching him as if he were a leper? Why was she doing everything humanly possible to not make eye contact with him?

She honestly had no idea. He hadnt done anything wrong. In fact, just the opposite, really. He had done everything right! He booked the flight, made breakfast, called a cab. And she'd acted like a spoiled brat. She wished she could snap out of her funk. She was trying to will herself to do it. But every time he did something like take her luggage, or hold open a door for her, or kiss her silly in the kitchen...well, she just got madder and madder. All of those gestures, as sweet as they might be, were just glaring reminders of what she would be missing out on when they got back to Harpers Crossing. But, still, she didnt want to spend the last few precious hours she had in their little bubble pouting. She needed to snap out of it as Cher had so eloquently put it in the movie Moonstruck. Rileys arm brushed against Chelle and she felt a ripple of desire flow through her. When she turned her head, she saw Riley staring at her, the look in his eyes conveying that he was feeling the same thing - or at least something very similar. How you doing over there? Riley asked, sounding genuinely concerned. Im good. Ive never flown business class, its nice. She tried to inject some life into her tone, to make sure that her voice sounded cheerful and upbeat. Unfortunately, she only managed monotone. Oh well, she supposed, it was better than sounding maudlin or pissed. The 'seatbelt' light came on and she reached into her purse to get her cell phone and turn it off before take-off. When she did she noticed she had six more missed calls, the same amount of voicemails, and eight text messages. A quick look to see who they were from confirmed what she already suspected. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. Great. She was going to have to deal with yet another thing as soon as she got home. So much for a quiet evening to get acclimated back to reality. She placed her phone back in her bag, clicked her seatbelt into place and leaned back in her seat. More work stuff? Riley asked. Oh, no. Chelle closed her eyes. I wish. What is it then? Nothing. She stated. Chelle. He sounded impatient and serious. She opened her eyes and lifted her head as she mimicked his tone, Riley. Who were the calls from? Why do you care? She snapped back at him.

Dammit! Why couldnt she just talk to him civilly? He didnt speak, just waited, patiently looking at her. She sighed, feeling a little guilty and a tiny bit embarrassed for how she was behaving. Theyre from David. What the hell does that douchebag want? Rileys voice was now very low and menacing. To talk. About what? His tone remained intense. I dont know yet. She answered honestly. Are you going to talk to him? He asked with disgust. Yes. Why? This conversation was going nowhere and it served no purpose other than maybe to put her in an even worse mood, if that was possible. Better to just nip this in the bud. She sighed loudly, A few reasons, actually. One: We still live in the same house. So, obviously, something needs to be done about that, and what that 'something' is has yet to be discussed or determined. Two: We have been together for years and weve built a life together. So, yes, I do have a slight level of curiosity about what he might have to say. Three: I was engaged to the man not even a month ago. She had been counting on her fingers, she now laid her hand on the armrest, I can hear him out, I at least owe him that much. You dont owe him anything, Riley growled. Ugh! He was so frustrating. She was over it. Time to give Mr. Buttinski seated beside her a piece of her mind. Youre right, as a matter of fact. I dont owe him anything. Just like I dont owe you anything, including answering your impromptu Spanish inquisition. But, She threw her arms up in a ta-da fashion, I guess Im a giver. So, I will talk to him and I did answer your questions. Now, its your turn to answer mine. Why. Do. You. Care? Instead of responding, explaining his annoying interest in her talk with David, he leaned closer to her and reached up, threading his fingers in her hair. Her mind raced. Why, WHY, did that have to feel SO good? His fingertips brushed the side of her neck and his thumb traced her jawline. Damn, she loved it when he did that. Perfect! One more thing she was going to miss. She could probably fill an encyclopedia with all of the things she was going to miss about Riley Sloan. She needed to pull away from him. She needed to keep her distance. She needed to do both of those things now if she had any chance of walking away from these last few days with her heart intact.

But did she pull away from him? Nope! Instead of doing what she knew she needed to do, she felt herself lean into his touch. He must have taken the small movement as the 'green-light-permissionto-pass-go-full-steam-ahead' signal because he crushed his mouth to hers. She gasped at the sudden contact of his lips against hers. It felt frantic. Desperate. Passionate. She opened to him and, as soon as their tongues touched, he slowed the frenetic pace, his tongue softly licking, gently probing, and sensuously gliding expertly inside her mouth. Exploring. Inexorably searching every inch. Seeking what, she didnt know - but he was certainly thorough in his quest. It felt almost as though they were making love while only kissing. Every single cell in her body was filled with the delicious sensations Rileys kiss was causing. It was amazing. It was earth shattering. It was mind-blowing. It was too much. Chelle used every ounce of self-preservation she could summon from deep inside her soul and pushed away from Riley. Chelle? He asked through labored breath, reaching for her once again. She put her hand up and shook her head, Justdont. She attempted to calm her racing heart. It astounded her that a heart that was, at this very moment in time, breaking into a million tiny pieces could simultaneously be pounding so strongly. Well, I guess - learn something new every day, she thought. Honestly though, she would have rather skipped this particular anatomy lesson. She looked out the small circular window of the plane. Watching the clouds below her, she suddenly felt very small, very insignificant. There was a great big world out there and her problems were miniscule compared to it. She took in a deep, fortifying breath. She knew she would need time to put herself back together post-Riley, but she was confident that could do it. The world would keep spinning when he was gone out of her life. And she would always have San Francisco. She could hold on to those memories forever.

Chapter Twenty-one
Riley had originally thought that the tense plane ride would be the low point of their trip home. He had thought wrong. The instant they had gotten off of the plane, the tension had skyrocketed up from ten to ten thousand. The thing that frustrated Riley the most was that he knew he had only had himself to blame. He was not only letting Chelles bad mood set the tone of their exchanges, he had then gone on to adopt a foul mood of his very own. For the last hour he had been fighting a powerful, overwhelming urge to turn the car around, go back to the airport, book the first flight out, and take Chelle back to San Francisco. Things had been perfect in San Francisco. God, if he could just get them back to the easy (yet smokin-hot) camaraderie that they had shared during their idyllic stay there. Although, logically, he realized that kidnapping her and flying her back halfway across the country was not the answer - nor even, you know...legal - he still had to fight the small voice in his head which was screaming at him that it would solve everything. That internal battle had begun as soon as they had started down the highway. They barely spoke during the entire ride back to Harpers Crossing. Chelle had just sat silently, staring out the window. Riley had no idea what was going through her head. He knew that she wasnt ready to return home. He assumed that had a lot to do with Douchebag David. But there was that pesky little voice in his head, which loved to chime in on matters like these, and that little voice told him that he was also a factor in her reluctance to be heading back so soon. As much as it was killing him to see her so miserable, there was a small part of him that wanted to believe it was partly due to the fact that she would miss the time they had spent together. He couldn't lie. As much as it hurt him to see her hurting, he couldn't help but feel just a tiny bit touched that she might feel that bad at the thought of being apart from him. Hell, that alone was proof enough, in and of itself, that she deserved better than him, he thought. It just goes to show that I am one selfish asshole. They passed the sign on the side of the road indicating that they were now entering Harpers Crossing. They had passed the city limits. That meant that their journey together both the literal and the metaphorical one was rapidly drawing to a close. Riley didnt want the last few minutes they spent together to be wasted with the two of them sitting tensely side by side, not even speaking. So, as they pulled to a stop light one that hadnt been there last time he was home he motioned to an elderly couple crossing the street. Keeping his voice intentionally light, he said, Whats the story?

Chelle didnt respond immediately. Riley was just about to share his answer, even though the person who asks never goes first but, hey, he would bend the rules for Chelle when she turned and looked at him like he had just grown an extra head. What? He asked when she continued staring at him strangely. You cant play if you know the people. She spoke slowly, as if he hadnt been following along with the conversation. Oh, do you know them? He looked back up at the couple who had safely made it across 10th Street. Yes, and so do you. Thats Principal Jenson and his wife Mary. Wasnt he your principal at Great Oaks? she asked, furrowing her brow. Oh, damn! I cant believe I didnt recognize him. He looked again and thought that he would feel some spark of recognition. That something familiar about him would jog his memory. It didnt. He shook his head as the light turned green, I spent enough time in his office. I should have been able to pick him out of a line up. Chelle broke into a half-smile, Well, Im sure he could pick you out of one. True. Riley felt his heart break open just a little more. He paused and then, as he turned his attention back to the road, he said, I missed that. What? Running into people you dont recognize? she asked dryly. No. Seeing you smile. When she didnt answer he glanced over and saw that she had tears starting to form in her eyes. God dammit! He was an ass! Chelle, damn! Im sorry. I didnt mean to upset you. He reached out to comfort her, to rub her knee, but she pulled it away. Sniffing, she turned to him and put on her bright face. She said cheerfully, No worries. You didnt. She smiled again, probably trying to reassure him, but this time it definitely didnt reach her eyes. She turned her attention back out the window, to the streets that they were passing. Make a left on Grant Line, I live in the third house on the right. He made the turn and felt like he was going to throw up. Damn. He had been in battles, he had lost people close to him, he had had to deliver bad news to his unit on more than one occasion. But, in none of those situations had he ever felt like this. Not exactly like this. This was an entirely new brand of misery. It felt like someone was reaching inside his chest and squeezing the life out of his heart. He was having a tough time breathing. Dammit, he just didnt want her to go! He just wanted no,

needed a little more time with her. Well, maybe he could help her in with her luggage, make sure she was settled. It was the least he could do, as a matter of fact, to make sure that she was tucked safely inside her home. Then maybe he wouldnt feel like there was ton of bricks sitting on his chest. Hell, it was worth a shot. As he pulled into the driveway, she opened the door before he had even come to a complete stop. What the He threw open his door, hopped out and raced around to meet her at the trunk of the car. He was about to ask her what the hell she was doing when he saw tears streaming down her cheeks. He froze, not sure how to proceed. His first instinct was to pull her into his arms and tell her everything would be fine. He wanted to tell her that he would never hurt her, and that he would never let anyone else hurt her, either. But, the problem was, he knew that was a lie. Those would be hollow assurances, designed to make the two of them feel better in the moment, but containing no actual truth. The truth was that he might be able to protect her from the rest of the world...but he would never be able to protect her from himself. He would hurt her. He was sure of that. It was in his DNA. Chelle He began still uncertain of what to say. Sniffing and, from the looks of it, trying desperately to put on a brave face, Chelle patted the trunk of the car, Pop it, so I can get my bags. He did as she asked and reached in to pull out her suitcase and carry-on. As soon as he had them out of the trunk, Chelle reached out and tried to take them from him. I got it, she said firmly. Its okay, Ill take them in for you. She shook her head decisively, Nope, really, Ive got it. He heard someone clearing their throat loudly and looked towards the house. He saw David the Douchebag standing on the porch, arms crossed, glaring at them. Riley's gut tightened. Even if this asshole hadn't hurt Chelle, Riley would have wanted to knock him out based on nothing more than the incredibly smug air of self-righteous anger that was coming off of him in waves at this moment. Holy shit this guy was a douchebag! Riley looked back at Chelle. She was holding out her hands, waiting for him to hand over her luggage. Well, hell, she could stand there all day and he still wasn't about to let her drag these heavy bags up those steps. He was that much of a gentleman, at least! He turned and began walking towards the steps that David stood at the top of, glaring silently. Riley, give me my bags, He heard Chelle say with an urgent note in her voice as she quickly

fell in behind him. Im just taking them up to the door. He turned to look back at her, hoping to gauge just exactly how mad she was. He didnt want to really, truly piss her off...but there was no way in hell that was she going to carry anything that heavy when he was around! Her shoulders slumped and she sighed loudly, making her displeasure known. Fine. As he turned back around he saw David had moved to stand directly in the path to the front door. Where do you think youre going, Sloan? He puffed out his chest. Riley had to suppress a laugh. Douchebag David could not be serious. Move, David. Riley didnt mean it to come out sounding as harsh as it did, but he was not in the mood to deal with this crap. If Chelle wanted to, that was her prerogative...but that didn't mean he had to. Leave them by the door and then get the hell off my property. David slurred. Two thoughts immediately filled Rileys head. First, this guy really wanted to get his ass kicked. Second, David was hammered. After setting the luggage down by the door Riley turned back to Chelle, Im not leaving you with him. Ill be fine. Hes harmless. Chelle rolled her eyes. Hey, David tried to step closer to them but ended up tripping over his own feet. He grabbed the railing and was able to steady himself. Dont talk about me like Im not even in the room. This is a porch. David glanced around, surprised, like he hadn't even realized where he was. Don't talk about me like I'm not on the porch. Riley tried to quickly assess the situation, to decide if it was actually safe to leave her here with him. Before he could come to a determination, however, Chelle pushed past him and opened the front door. Stepping inside, awkwardly pulling her baggage along with her. David stumbled through the door in her wake. Before shutting the front door behind her, she looked up at him and smiled a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless and it hit him like a ton of bricks. Thanks for everything, Riley. Youve been amazing. I really do appreciate it so much. With that, she shut the door. He stood for a moment on her porch, stunned and feeling at loose ends. Not knowing what else to do, he pulled out his phone and scrolled to a familiar number on speed dial.

--- ~ --Chelle leaned her forehead against the wooden front door. Her body felt so heavy. She wanted to crawl into bed, pull the covers over her head and hide from the world. Well...first she wanted to order a pizza and get some ice cream...but then she wanted to crawl into bed and stay there. What the hell were you doing with Riley Sloan? David asked through clenched teeth. The way he said Rileys name made her want to punch him in the face. Suddenly, she felt the full force of why everyone always called him Douchebag David. She had never been able to see it before. But now, the derisive note in his voice as he slurred Riley's name really brought it home to her. Still, she had to admit he wasn't the only one that viewed Riley that way. People always treated Riley like a delinquent, a troublemaker, like he was some kind of hoodlum. She hated it. That wasnt the Riley she knew. Its really none of your business, David, She said calmly as she made her way to the kitchen, hoping that a glass of water would calm her jangling nerves. Like hell its not. Youre my fianc! Chelle spun around faster than she even thought was humanly possible. No, David, I am NOT your fianc, she said tightly, her voice trembling with barely contained rage, Your fianc is about ten years younger than I am, has blonde hair and stellar filing skills, and is currently pregnant with your child. Ring a bell? Kayla and I are over, Chelle. He made the announcement and looked at her expectantly as if she was going to swoon, or jump for joy. When she did none of those, he actually moved to take her hands in his. Seriously? Wow! There were just no words. He actually looked surprised when she snatched her hands away. Im done with her, he explained, as if the only problem with what he was saying was that Chelle didn't understand the implications of the situation, We can be together again, doll. He stepped towards her and she quickly turned away from him. The way he said doll made Chelles skin crawl. How could she have ever agreed to marry this man? The thought caused a chill to run down her spine - and not the good kind, either the heebie-jeebies kind. She shook her head and continued into the kitchen. She worked hard to keep herself under control. She was, after all, heading into the room in the house that contained the knives...

David, she said, carefully modulating her voice and speaking slowly, as if she were addressing a recalcitrant child, We are not getting back together. Is this because of Riley? Have you been seeing him behind my back? Is that why we havent slept together in over six months? David, in contrast to Chelle's efforts, apparently saw no value whatsoever in attempting to modulate his own voice, and it rose several decibels louder with each question/accusation. You have some nerve! Chelle yelled back, then took a deep breath and lowered her voice, continuing in a voice that was as calm as she could muster. This has nothing to do with Riley. You and I are not together, and will not ever be getting back together, because of YOU, David! Look in a mirror if you want to know why we havent slept together in over six months. You cheated on me. You were seeing Kayla behind my back. Shes pregnant for Gods sake! Theres no baby, David said, looking dejected, Kayla lied. Shes not pregnant. Chelle was momentarily stunned. Not because she cared whether or not Kayla was pregnant she didnt. But the look of complete and total sadness she saw in Davids eyes caught her off guard. He looked utterly bereft. She realized it may be the first time she had seen an authentic emotion in them. She was just about to ask if he was okay, her nurturing instincts getting the better of her in spite of herself, when there was a loud knock on the door. Her stomach dropped and she felt her heart skip a beat. It took her a moment before she realized that it wasn't the sudden loud noise that had caused this intense reaction. Oh, that had startled her, sure. But she was flushed and filled with adrenaline right now mainly because her mind had immediately assumed that it was Riley outside, pounding on the door. Her breathing became labored as she walked the few steps to the front door. She looked out through the peep hole and was flooded with a confusing mixture of equal parts 'relieved' and 'disappointed.' She opened the door and her brother Eddie pushed his way inside. What are you doing here? Chelle asked, more than a little irritated. She was so not in the mood to deal with her big brother! Eddie leaned down and kissed her on the top of the head. He had done that since they were kids. It had always made her feel safe and loved. The sweet gesture made her revisit her initial reaction to his appearance in her doorway. Riley called. He said Douchebag is drunk and he didnt feel good about leaving you alone with him. Is Riley still here? Her eyebrows shot up, but otherwise she tried to mask the facial

evidence that her stomach had dropped again. A strange look crossed Eddies face and she thought she may have been unsuccessful. He shook his head, Nah, he took off when I pulled up. A flash flood of disappointment rushed through Chelles body. She tried to do a better job of masking it on her face so that it wouldnt be as glaringly obvious. Chelle? Her brothers tone indicated that she had failed to do so. Damn. She was 0 for 2. Eddie's eyes narrowed. What's wrong? Nothing. Im fine. Really. She put on her bravest face and used her most confident voice as she answered. Seemingly convinced, he dropped it. So, wheres the douchebag? Chelle looked up and saw David walking out of the kitchen holding a beer in one hand. Great. That's all the situation needed. More alcohol! As soon as she saw the look on Davids face, she got a very strong feeling that this was not going to end well. What did you call me? Awwww....crap. She reached up and placed her hand on her brothers arm, Dont, Eddie. Im serious. A douchebag. Eddie said flatly. Her head dropped and her shoulders slumped. Why me, she thought. WHY ME? She saw a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye as David lunged towards her brother. Eddie smoothly stepped a foot to the right, causing David to lose his balance and fall flat on his face, sending his beer flying. Get out of my house, David yelled as he tried and failed several times to get up off the floor. Eddie picked him up by the back of his shirt, spun him around, and pushed him up against the wall. He held him in place with his forearm pressed against his neck. Heres the deal, Douchebag. You have ten minutes to get everything you need and get the hell out of here. This is my sisters house. She lived here before you moved in. I dont care what it says on some piece of paper. You dont live here anymore. You're gonna get your shit, get the hell out of here, and leave my sister the hell alone. Eddie stared at David for what felt to Chelle like an hour but was, in reality, probably only a few seconds. David looked terrified. Do you understand? Eddie asked calmly.

David nodded his head in the affirmative. Well, as much as he could with Eddies forearm being pressed up under his chin. Eddie released him and David scrambled back to the bedroom, presumably to collect his things. Chelle stared at the space that David had just occupied and thought to herself, Riley would never have backed down to Eddie. Okay. Wow. She really needed to lock that kind of thinking down if she was ever going to get over him! A knock on the door, she had thought it was Riley. Eddie says Riley called him, she had thought he was still there. David gets punked, and she had compared him to Riley. Riley hadnt even been out of her life for an hour yet, and she was already on some kind of Riley-induced emotional roller coaster. Well, time to get off that ride and get on with her own life. Her real life. Her Riley-free life. Sigh. Now she really wanted pizza and ice cream.

Chapter Twenty-two
As he walked up the steps of the bar portion of The Grill, Riley was seriously regretting his decision to call his brother, Alex, to pick him up after he dropped off his rental car. The minute Riley had climbed into his brothers truck, Alex had declared Riley his wingman for the night and told him they were meeting Bobby for drinks. It wasnt that he didnt want to spend time with his brothers. He did. It was just that he wasnt really in a social mood. He wanted to be alone. Well, actually he wanted to be with Chelle, but since that wasnt an option - he wanted to be alone. Bobby was waiting for them in a booth in the back corner and, as he stood, Riley couldnt believe his eyes. Bobby and Seth had always resembled each other, both had jet black hair and blue eyes, but now Bobby was the spitting image of Seth at age 24. Hey, Bro. Good to see you, Bobby said as he stood. Damn, he even sounded like Seth. They both had those deep, sonorous voices which lent everything they said an air of gravitas and made them sound as if they were constantly doing real-time narration of a documentary of their life. Riley felt as if he had just walked into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Good to see you, too, Riley said as they briefly hugged before sitting down in the booth. A young, attractive waitress came over to take their orders. Hey Nina, Alex greeted her with a wink. The girl blushed, Hi, Alex. Riley couldnt help but smile and shake his head a little. Some things never change, he thought. Can I get you guys something? she asked, her attention still solely focused on Alex. How about a pitcher of Bud and some hot wings, Bobby suggested as he set the menu down. Sure, yeah...um...comin' right up, she said, blushing, clearly a little flustered at the sudden reminder that there were actually other people at the table. She glanced once more at Alex before heading up to the bar. Bobbys phone beeped and a huge grin spread across his face as his fingers typed out a message. Its like having dinner with teenagers, Alex said to Riley before turning to Bobby. No phones at the table, Bobby. Bobby didnt respond to Alex baiting him. Alex smiled as he shook his head, Tell Sophie her favorite brother-in-law says Hi.

Okay, Bobby said without looking up, Ill tell her Jason says Hi. Riley chuckled, Married life looks good on you, little brother. Initially, when he had heard of his baby brother's plans to get married, he had thought it was a very bad idea. Riley remembered what he himself had been like in his early twenties, and he knew for a fact that there was no way he would have been ready to settle down at that point. He would have ended up being miserable, and moreover so would the poor woman who had the misfortune of marrying him. He had talked with Jason, though, who had convinced him it was a good thing. Jason had explained that Sophie was Bobbys world and that they were good together. From the look that Bobby had on his face while even just texting his new bride, Riley had a strong suspicion that Jason was right. The waitress reappeared with the pitcher and three chilled glasses, again her cheeks turned a deep rose color when she saw Alex. Nina, do you know my brother Riley? Alex heartily patted Riley on the back. Her eyes widened, Youre Riley Sloan? Last time I checked. Wow, she breathed in awe. Ive heard so much about you. My brother Kenny was a few years behind you in school. Andwow, I justall the stories Ive heardI cant believe Riley wanted to move on from this topic of conversation, You shouldnt believe everything you hear. Oh, no! It was nothing bad, I think my brother just idolized you a little bit, him and all his friends. I would hear them talk about all the pranks you and Eddie Thomas would pull, she said, clearly impressed by whatever she had heard. That was a long time ago. I was a kid, He shot back, his voice hardening a bit with every word, until it was solid concrete by the time he spit out the last of it. He didnt want to be mean, but he really wasn't in the mood to take a trip down memory lane tonight. In fact, if he went the rest of his life and never reminisced about a single memory in his childhood, that would be just fine with him. Dont mind him, Alex said giving her his go-to mega-watt smile. He just got back from overseas and hes a little cranky. Riley shot him a look that in no uncertain terms conveyed exactly how he felt about being described as cranky - not to mention about having his travel itinerary spilled to complete strangers. Alex completely ignored the look Riley threw him. Riley decided that, at some point over the next few days while he was here, he and Alex were going to have to have a little talk about what Riley considered appropriate and inappropriate.

Oh! She snapped her fingers, Thats right. You were in the Marines, right? Why she was still standing here - at their table talking, Riley had no idea, but maybe if he answered her questions she would just go away. Why did people find him so damn interesting, anyway? Yep. Are you home for good or just here visiting? She asked, seeming to be genuinely interested in his reply. Riley had forgotten how much people pried into your personal business when you lived in a small town. He didnt like itat all. Im here for a few days. Are you heading back overseas after that? Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alexs smile get even bigger. Clearly his brother was enjoying the fact that Riley was clearly not enjoying this conversation. No. Oh, Nina said, finally taking the hint and dropping the subject. See, I told you, Alex said as he covertly pointed in Rileys direction and mouthed, cranky. She giggled, Well, let me know if you guys need anything else. Your wings should be up in a minute. As she bounced away Alex not-so-subtly checked out her rear before turning his attention back to Riley, You didn't have to be so mean to poor Nina. Riley replied, un-phased, Poor Nina didn't have to be so nosy. Alex smiled, obviously enjoying the banter for its own sake and not because he felt any compulsion to truly protect 'poor Nina's' honor. I think the phrase you're searching for is 'polite interest' dear brother, Alex grinned. Drop it, Alex. Riley took a swig of beer. Bobby put his phone down and decided to join the conversation. So, Jason mentioned that you were going to head down to New Orleans. Yeah, I invested in a bar that a couple of my buddies opened, Riley replied. Well, Sophie wants to know if you'll still be here on Sunday. She wants to throw a welcome home party for you. The thought of a bunch of people gathering together for the specific purpose of talking to him and prying into his private business did not sound very 'welcoming to Riley. In fact, if they truly wanted to give him a 'welcome home'' gift he would appreciate, it would be to forgo making a big

deal about him being back in town, and for Gods sake, stop bringing up his damn past! Yeah. That wasn't likely to happen. So, not wanting to be rude to his new sister-in-law, he simply nodded. He knew her intentions were good, and hed always thought she was a sweet kid. He could grin and bear it through one uncomfortable afternoon if it made her happy. Alex must have sensed his hesitation because he chimed in, Jason and Katie get back on Saturday. Why dont we make it a joint party, for the newlyweds and the returning hero? Sounds good to me, Bobby shrugged, Ill tell Soph. He picked up his phone again and started texting. So, you staying at Dads or did you want to crash with me? Alex asked as he took a swig of beer. Ill stay with the old man. I wouldnt want to cramp your style. See, thats why you make a good wingman, Alex grinned, But, I think you might be cramping Dads style more than mine. The ladies love them some Bob Sloan. Dads dating? Riley asked, stunned in disbelief. More than me, and thats sayin' something. A lot can change in twelve years, bro. Riley tried to wrap his mind around the concept of his dad being a ladies man. It didn't seem real. He shook his head. I guess so. Alright, guess Ill bunk with you then. A new server delivered the wings and Bobby quickly ate a couple before announcing he was headed home to see his wife. Of course, Riley and Alex gave him a hard time about going home to The Little Missus, but Bobby couldn't have cared less. He dropped a couple of twenties on the table and left wearing a smile that reached from ear to ear. Riley thought that his non-reaction to the ribbing could have been because, growing up with four older brothers, you would have to develop thick skin in order to hang onto your sanity. But, more likely it was that he didnt care about his brother's teasing because he knew what he had waiting for him when he got home. A woman he loved with all his heart, and who loved him right back. The image of Chelle, sitting on the couch when he had gone out to rent them a movie popped into his head. His chest ached. He felt empty. He had only dropped her off a couple of hours earlier but he missed her more than he ever knew was possible. There was a part of him that wanted to call her. Go to her house. Hold her. Kiss her. Touch her. Feel her. Drive himself into her until the dark, heavy, empty feeling went away. But an even bigger part of him just wanted to be near her. To hear her voice. To look in her eyes. To see her smile. He sighed. Which was exactly why he knew he needed to stay away. If he didnt make a clean

break now, he wasnt sure he would ever be able to walk away from her. His phone buzzed and he pulled it quickly out of his pocket. His first thought wasChelle. He felt a rush of adrenaline, kind of like he would feel right before a mission. Until he saw who had sent the text, then his heart sank once again. Megan. Shit. He had forgotten all about her. Literally. The thought of her hadnt entered his mind in even the most fleeting instant since the first day he was in San Francisco. And the only reason he had even thought of her then was that he had been trying to convince himself that all he needed in order to get Chelle out of his system was to get laid. Well, that hadnt exactly gone as planned. For the last three months, he and Megan had been exchanging texts and Facebook messages. They'd been pretty suggestive, he had to admit. He had fully intended to hook up with her while he was in town. Hell, he had actually been looking forward to it. Now, the thought of being with someone else - not just Megan, but anyone who wasnt Chelle - just didnt hold the same appeal. Or any appeal, when it came right down to it. He needed to let Megan know that things had changed. Riley may be an ass in a lot of ways, but he never led women on. --- ~ --After working three sixteen hour days back-to-back, Chelle normally would have wanted to go home and go straight to bed. But, since she had gotten home from San Francisco four days ago, her bed did not have the same appeal that it used to. Every night since returning home, she had lain in her bed and tossed and turned. It felt so lonely and empty. Not because the man that she had shared it with for over a year no longer occupied it. David being gone didnt bother her at all. Nope. She was having restless nights because of the absence of a man she had shared a completely different bed with for two (yep, that's right, ladies and gentlemen...two, count 'em, TWO) nights only. It wasnt even as if she had any memories of Riley in her own bed. But every night since she had been home and her head hit the pillow she just feltempty. She tried snuggling with her body pillow. It didnt work. So when she had gotten a text earlier in the day from Sophie saying that Katie was home and declaring tonight Girls Night Out...well, she had figured - what the hell?! At least being out with her friends would be better than being at home. Alone. In a Riley-less bed. Now, as she walked up the wooden steps of The Grill Bar, she thought she may have made the

wrong choice. She was exhausted and had not been able to shake the bad mood she had been in since coming back home. As she reached the top of the steps, she was very tempted to just turn right back around and head down again the way she had come up. Just get in her car, go home, and cry. Yep, she thought with a sort of gallows faux cheerfulness, that sounds like a much better use of my Saturday night! She was turning to leave when Sophie and her blonde curls bounded up the stairs, enthusing, Yay! Youre already here! I was scared you wouldnt come! Her hands flew up in the air, Girls Night, Woohoo! Reaching out and grabbing Chelles hand she pulled her through the sea of people until they reached the small VIP area. Chelle smiled. The small grouping of tables in the corner was the same one that they had sat at for Sophies bachelorette party a couple months back. She saw a lot of the same faces there now as she had that night. There were Rileys cousins, Haley, Krista, Jessie, and Becca Sloan - aka The Quad Squad. Sitting next to them was Amber and also some of Sophies friends from school. Chelle looked for Katie but didn't see her. Hey, is Katie running late? Chelle asked after Sophie had ordered a round of shots. No, she said she was too tired to come out tonight. Sophie smiled and rolled her eyes, But she didnt sound tired when I talked to her, if you know what I mean. Sophie waggled her eyebrows up and down. Chelle knew exactly what she meant. And, truthfully, she couldn't blame her diamond friend. If she had the option of having a Girls Night Out or staying at home with Riley, there would be no contest. But, hey, promise - if youre not working tomorrow you have to come over. Were having a BBQ for Jason and Katie. Theyre the guests of honor so they have to show up to that one! Sophie giggled. That sounds great, Chelle smiled, And, as it happens, I do have tomorrow off. What time should I be there? Any time after one is great. Oh, and would you mind making your peanut butter fudge? Its always a big hit. Please? Pretty pretty please? Sophie batted her eyelashes. Sure, no problem! Chelle laughed. She loved making people happy, and it was true - her peanut butter fudge did tend to make a lot of people happy. Amber leaned in, I cant believe you didnt stay home being tired with Bobby tonight Soph. A blush rose on Sophies cheeks, Well, Bobby had to work late. With Jason being gone the last couple weeks hes had to put in some long hours. He texted that hell be home around 11.

Amber looked at her watch, Well, its 8:45 right now, so let me guess - youre going to get tired in about two hours. Sophie smiled, Its so weird, its like youre psychic! They laughed and after some of the girls had taken shots, they all decided it was time to dance. After about an hour of letting loose and tearing it up on the dance floor, Chelle and Amber dragged themselves back to the comfort of the black leather couches in the roped off area that Sophie had reserved. I dont know where that girl gets her energy. Amber said nodding her head towards Sophie as she took a large drink of water. Chelle sank back into the cushiony paradise of the couches they were seated on as she took a long pull on her own bottle of water, Shes been like that since we were kids. She was always go, go, go. Chelle? A woman said behind where they were seated. Amber looked up before Chelle had a chance to turn around, Hey, Megan. Chelle turned around and smiled, Hi. Megan was a few years older than Chelle. Although she vaguely knew who the other woman was, Chelle didnt think they had ever actually spoken before. Megan had always reminded Chelle of a Barbie. In high school, she had been a cheerleader, popular, blondeperfect. Are you seeing Riley? Megans voice was shaky. She wasnt smiling. Chelle was completely caught off guard. She didnt exactly know what to say, so she went with the truth, I havent seen him since we got back to Harpers Crossing. OKAY, Megans voice started getting louder as her indignation grew and she seemed to be teetering closer to the edge of losing control, then would you please explain to me why - after we have been together for three months - he spends a couple of days with you, and now all of a sudden he doesnt want to see me anymore? What? Chelle stood in shock, not believing what she was hearing. Riley and I have been together for months and now hes not even returning my calls, she yelled. Amber quickly moved and stood protectively in front of Chelle. She spoke calmly but firmly, Megan, you need to calm down, sweetie. No, I dont, she wailed as she tried to step around Amber. Her eyes burned with fury as she jabbed her finger accusingly at Chelle, Just because you dont know how to keep a man doesnt mean you get to steal other peoples. Megan, stop, Amber commanded.

Its fine, Amber, Chelle moved so that she was standing closer to Megan and the entire bar didnt overhear their conversation. Luckily, the music was so loud and the place was so packed that no one had seemed to notice the drama so far. Chelle looked into her eyes and saw real pain there. She knew that she hadnt done anything to intentionally cause it, but she still felt bad for her. Look Megan, she said softly, I dont know anything about whats going on with you and Riley. I havent heard from him since he dropped me off the other day. I swear. Megans shoulders slumped and her lower lip trembled, II justI love him. Chelle wanted to tell her that she could relate, but she didnt think that would go over so well. Tears fell down Megans cheeks, I thought it was going to work this time. This time? Chelle had never known that Megan and Riley were a couple. But, then again, no one knew about her and Riley being a couple, either....but still. Chelle knew what the deal was because she had seen so many girls strung out over Eddie. The truth was, though, if she hadnt been privy to those relationships and heard how her brother would talk about those girls, she would probably have been just as naive as Megan. She most likely would have thought that she and Riley had something special. She might have been the one making a scene in a bar. Well, no probably not. That wasnt really her style. Still, she was glad she had seen up close and personal what the aftermath of loving Riley Sloan could do to a person if she wasn't vigilant. And Megan said they had been talking for months! Riley had told Chelle he wasnt seeing anyone. Hmmmm.... It doesnt matter, she told herself, whatever Riley and I had is over now. And so was this night. Chelle had had just about all of the Girls Night Out fun she could stand. Even her empty bed was better than this.

Chapter Twenty-three
Riley hadnt seen Chelle in four days. Well...technically four days, eighteen hours, and about forty-five minutes. He had just heard Sophie tell his cousin Becca that Chelle would be bringing peanut butter fudge to the BBQ, so he knew that at some point this afternoon the, last-time-I-sawChelle, clock that had been constantly running in his mind would be reset back to zero. Every day that he had spent without seeing her felt like a marathon. He had tried tricking his mind. He couldn't face waking up and accepting the reality that he was going to face an entire day without hearing her voice, touching her, hearing her laugh, seeing her smile. So instead, he broke his day up into hours. He would tell himself he couldnt call her for an hour. Then once that hour passed he would add another hour. Sometimes even the hours had seemed too long for him to handle and he was forced to break it down into minutes. Hed tell himself he wouldnt call her for thirty minutes. Sometimes it was even as little as ten minutes. So far his no-contact plan had worked. He hadnt called. Hadnt gone to her house. Hadnt stopped by the hospital when she was working. It had been hell, but he had resisted. Sitting on the back deck of Bobby and Sophies new house, watching his family and friends laugh and talk, he should have been content happy, even. He hadnt seen a lot of these people in several years, and he loved all of them. Not to mention the fact that this party was technically one-third for him, so logically he should feel not only like a part of the festivities, but at the center of them. Instead he felt like an outsider, like he was simply watching all of these friendly interactions, even the ones that he was participating in, from a distant vantage point completely outside of himself. When it came down to it, he just hadnt felt right since he had driven away from Chelles house four days before. He had kept himself busy over the last five days, sure. He had spent most of his time with Eddie and Emily, who had very proudly showed off her chicken pox scars. She was such a great kid. Eddie had done an amazing job as a dad. Riley knew it hadnt been easy for him when Lacey left, but Riley could not be prouder of him. Then, the night before, Riley had gotten a chance to sit down with his dad, which was good. He had apologized for his behavior in his teen years, which was something that he had been intending to do for years. Bob, Rileys dad, hadnt wanted to hear it. He said that he was proud of him and how well he had done in the service as an adult. He even shared with Riley about some of the trouble that he himself had gotten into as a teen.

The conversation hadnt gone how Riley had pictured it going, but he felt better for having had it. He was hoping that he would see Grandpa J, aka The Colonel, today at the BBQ. Since he was Sophies Grandpa, Riley felt like there was a pretty good chance he would be in attendance. He wanted to thank him for taking the time to talk to him when he had been a punk teen. Also, since he now knew Chelle would be here, it would be a good time to say goodbye to her. He had gotten a call from Landon the day before to let him know that they had a meeting with the bank on Tuesday. They were planning on consolidating their loans and getting a better interest rate. They felt it would go better if all of the partners were present. So, Riley was headed out to New Orleans, and away from Harper's Crossing, tomorrow afternoon. He should be excited to start his new life. He wasnt. Well now, I havent seen you round here for quite some time. The Colonels voice boomed from the sliding back door. Riley smiled as he stood and took off his aviator sunglasses. Colonel. He reached out to shake his hand, but The Colonel pulled him into a hug. Its good to see you home son. Its good to see you home. He patted his back heartily several times before releasing Riley from his embrace. Good to be home, sir. Riley said, and oddly enough, it was true. He had originally been dreading being back in the small town he had spent his wild youth in. But, other than the constant torture of maintaining distance from Chelle, it hadnt been that bad. In fact, Riley had actually enjoyed being back in Harpers Crossing. Grandpa J took the seat next to Riley and motioned for him to sit down as well. So. I hear that youve got yourself a bar down in Louisiana. That right? Riley had to smile. Typical Harper's Crossing. Everybody knew everybodys business here. Yephe was home. Thats right. A couple of buddies and I went in as partners. They've been running things, and from all accounts have done a good job. I'm headed down there tomorrow. Grandpa J smiled, Good to hear son. Its good to have a plan when you get out. Im proud of you. In the last two days, he had heard that same sentiment from the two men that he respected most in the world. It felt good. He heard his cousins and Sophie squealing and greeting each other in the special way that only girls did, so there was a good chance that either Katie or Chelle had just joined the party. Chelle. His heart began to race and his palms were sweaty. It wasn't like this was a surprise. He had

figured he would see Chelle today. But now that the moment was fast approaching, he couldn't get his pulse under control. Then, he heard Katies voice announcing how much fun they had had on their honeymoon and he slumped back in his chair and looked at his watch. 2:10. Maybe Chelle wouldnt be coming after all. Riley felt a slap on his shoulder and looked up to see Jason. He stood and hugged his brother. Hey, man. Thanks for checking on Chelle and putting Katies mind at ease, I owe you one, Jason said as his new wife joined them. Yes, thank you so much Riley! We owe you, Katie said as she hugged both him and Grandpa J. No, you dont. Chelles my friend, too. Well at least he hoped she still considered him a friend. Anyway. Congratulations, you two. I really wish I could have made it to the wedding. Oh, it was a beautiful wedding. We missed you. Im just so glad youre home safe and sound, now, Katie said, just as someone across the yard called her name. Come on, Kit Kat. We better go make the rounds. Jason leaned down and kissed her briefly and Katie smiled up at his brother like he was her hero. Chelle had looked at him like that. The difference was that Jason deserved that title. Riley, on the other hand, did not. How long are you in town? Jason asked Riley. Just until tomorrow afternoon. Breakfast at Gerard's Diner before you head out? Sounds good. Riley watched as Jason and Katie made their way down the steps of the deck. They looked so in love, so happy. And Riley was happy for them, they deserved all the happiness in the world. But for some reason, seeing them together just made him miss Chelle even more. As they sat back down in their chairs, Grandpa J cleared his throat, So, you were the one who went out to take care of our Chelle in California. I was already out there to visit some friends. Since I was coincidentally headed her way anyway, I just stopped by to make sure she was doing alright. Riley said, clarifying and trying to downplay the whole thing. Well, hows our girl doing? Riley didnt know how to answer that. Last he had seen her she was crying and had shut a door in his face. He didnt want to tell The Colonel that. I havent seen her since we got back a few days ago. I see, The Colonel responded sagely, eyeing Riley closely.

For some reason, the way he said those two words I see' caused Riley to have the sudden urge to spill his guts. Tell him everything. The man had straightened things out in Rileys head when he was younger. Hell, maybe he could help him again? Not to mention, the sly look The Colonel was giving him told him that he may have guessed the lion's share, anyway. It would feel good to unburden himself. He took a deep breath. "When we were in Riley began, but was interrupted by a tornado of color that whipped up the steps of the deck. Gentleman, inside please, Katies Aunt Wendy clapped her hands excitedly, I have prepared a surprise for my buttercup and her hubby. Oh well, Riley thought as he and Grandpa J made their way inside with the rest of the crowd, Im used to figuring stuff out on my own. Why should this be any different? Jason and Katie were ushered to the middle of the family room by a very excited Aunt Wendy. Everyone take a seat, or stand, or whatever...I don't care if you squat...but get comfortable, Wendy directed. Riley watched as Jason bent down and whispered something into his new brides ear. Katies eyes brightened and a flush rose up her cheeks. She leaned up and kissed his brother, who had his arms wrapped protectively around her. Riley had never been too big on public displays of affection. But, after spending those amazing days in San Francisco with Chelle, he understood it. He knew that if she was his, he wouldnt ever be able to keep his hands to himself. He would hold her every second he could, whether they were in a crowd of people or not. As if on cue, the front door opened and Chelle walked in wearing a white sundress and carrying a tray of her famous peanut butter fudge. The second he laid eyes on her he wanted to wrap his arms around her and breathe her in. In fact, he had to stop himself from pushing through the crowd of people gathered to see Aunt Wendys surprise and doing exactly that. She smiled and, even though he could tell that it was just a polite smile as opposed to one of her real smiles, it still knocked the wind right out of him. Hey guys, sorry Im late. I got called in last night. Then, of course, I had to make these. She lifted the large plate she was holding. Katie pushed her way through the crowd and gave Chelle a big hug. When she did, Chelles mouth lifted into a genuine, full blown, knock-you-flat-on-your-ass smile. Riley felt its effects as a warmth spread through his entire body. As Chelle made her way through the mass of people, most of them greeted her in the same

way, saying it was good to see her and asking her if she was okay or how she was holding up. She was her usual friendly self and answered everyone, telling them she was great and holding up just fine. Then she would ask them how they were, usually asking about something specific in their life. She asked Haley, his cousin, how her design classes were comingwow, he hadn't even known she was in school. She asked Mike, Sophies dad, how his knee was feeling after the accident, and Pam, Katies mom how the new bathroom had turned out. She also genuinely listened to them and cared about their responses. He could watch her like this all day, smiling and talking with everyone. Damn. He had it bad. As she reached him, their eyes met. Riley felt like a thunderbolt had struck him in right through his heart. His chest was tight and he wasnt sure if he was breathing. He knew he should say something, he just couldnt seem to form words. He couldnt do anything but stare into her gorgeous doe eyes. She broke away from his gaze as she glanced around the room nervously. Riley hadnt noticed until that moment that the room had fallen completely silent, waiting for Aunt Wendy's presentation to begin. She looked back up at him briefly. Hi, she said quietly. Hi, he responded awkwardly. She moved around him and set the peanut butter fudge down on the dining room table that he was standing in front of. Okay! Wendy bellowed, Now that everyone is here we can begin. Wendy pulled a sheet off of a large screen that was set up in front of the fireplace. I put this special treat together for my buttercup and her Romeo. Hit the lights, Sophiebell! Sophie nodded happily as she closed all of the curtains and blinds, and turned off all the lights. Roll it, hot stuff. Wendy told Bobby, who was seated on the couch with his laptop. He pressed a button on his keyboard and a picture of Katie and Jason appeared on the screen, looking like they were probably in Kindergarten. Katie was holding a clay impression of her hand and Jason held his fingers in a V behind her head giving her bunny ears. Everyone laughed. The next slide showed them in some kind of school play. Katie was standing center stage, her arms outstretched and looked to be delivering a line. Jason stood off to stage right sticking out his tongue doing a goofy face to whoever was taking the photo. Katie turned and swatted Jason playfully on the arm, and everyone in the room chuckled. The next was a series that showed them out at the lake at approximately age twelve. In the first

one, Katie was standing at the end of the dock and Jason was sneaking up behind her. Then the slide changed to Katie being picked up by Jason, and the next shot showed him jumping into the lake with her in his arms. Then, the last photo in the series depicted Katie shoving Jasons head beneath the water, dunking him in retaliation. Everyone cracked up, it was a crowd-pleaser. Katie looked out at the group, light-heartily announcing, He deserved it. There were several more shots from their teen years. Showing them at various places science camp, parades, and car washes. They were all fun, but more than that, it was photographic evidence of their connection even then. The last photo looked to be from prom, Jason and Katie were slow dancing. Katie had laid her head on Jasons shoulder and Jason was looking down at her with so much love, so much longing in his eyesit was beautiful. The crowd erupted in oohs and awws, and Riley turned to Chelle and noticed she was tearing up. He wanted so badly to reach out to her, to pull her to him, to keep her there forever. Instead, he just asked lamely, You okay? She nodded, but he knew she wasnt. She had dark circles under her eyes, which told him that she hadnt been getting much sleep. Riley knew the feeling. After spending only two (well, two and half) nights with Chelle beside him, sleeping without her pressed against him seemed impossible. He had only gotten a couple hours of sleep each night since they got back from San Francisco and it had nothing to do with his brothers uncomfortable couch. He had slept in ditches, in Humvees hell, even standing up. He could sleep anywhere. Nope, his sleepless nights were due to the fact that he felt as if a part of himself was missing. And now, that part was standing next to him, crying.

Chapter Twenty-four
Chelle couldnt stop the tears that were falling down her face. Watching the slide show brought a lot of emotions to the surface that she had been trying her darndest to completely ignore. It also didnt help that the source of most of those pesky emotions was standing right beside her, looking dangerously sexy in a black v-neck t-shirt and jeans. I really should have just stayed home, she thought to herself. I did not need this today. After the picture of Jason and Katie dancing at prom, the slideshow transitioned seamlessly into the wedding pictures. They were beautiful. She looked over at her diamond friend and saw that Katie was crying, happy tears streaming down her face. Turning her attention back to the screen, Chelle watched as pictures of the ceremony flashed in front of her. Honestly, Chelle had been so out of it on Katie's wedding day that it seemed in many ways like she was seeing it all for the first time. She hadnt really been mentally present there at all, she'd been so laser-focused on just keeping it together until her responsibilities were over and she was able to escape. Next were pics of the reception. Aunt Wendy had included a lot of candid photos of all the guests and wedding party enjoying themselves. Chelle saw a few pictures of she and Alex dancing, and then some of her and Alex talking to guests. Then, several of her and Alex eating. Man, he really had not left her side for one minute! The thought occurred to her that maybe she should buy him something as a token of gratitude just a small gift to show how much it meant to her that he had looked out for her that day. There were shots of the cake cutting again, with Alex by Chelles side, protecting her. He really was a good friend. The last slide showed Jason and Katie getting into their limo, Katie waving out the window as they pulled away, Jason pulling his bride inside. Everyone clapped and cheered when the slideshow concluded. Katie gave Aunt Wendy a big hug, thanking her profusely. Above all the chatter about what an amazing video it was, and how cute Jason and Katie were together, Chelle heard raised voices coming from the kitchen. Well, one raised voice, at any rate, and she recognized it. It belonged to Riley. Without even giving it a second thought, she raced down the hall and pushed through the swinging door that led to the Spanish style kitchen. --- ~ ---

Chelle found Riley and Alex in the far corner having a heated conversation. Actually, Alex seemed to be calm, cool and collected. Riley on the other hand looked like he was about to spit nails. Is everything okay? Chelle asked, her question alerting them both to her presence. Simultaneously both of their heads snapped up, looking toward her. Alexs mouth immediately broke out in a wide mischievous grin, while Rileys jaw tensed. It seemed her arrival caused him to look even more upset than he already had been. Everythings fine, Riley said in clipped tones, his jaw so tight she could see a vein in his neck. Alex chuckled as he pushed past Riley and walked over to Chelle, casually putting his arm around her waist. Chelles brow furrowed as she gave him a sideways glance. What was he up to? You see, Alex began, his explanation aimed at Chelle. Alex, Riley warned. Uh-oh. She had heard that tone before. Riley obviously did not want her to know what they had been discussing. That just made her want to know even more. My big brother here, Alex continued, totally ignoring Riley, thought that I spent a little too much time with you at Jason and Katies wedding. Chelle wasnt following, What? I know, I dont get it. A guy tries to help a friend out and what does he get? Thanked? Nope. He gets threatened. Alex was still smiling from ear to ear, obviously enjoying this little exchange. Chelles head was spinning. She turned back to Riley, whose stance could only described as battle ready. You threatened him? she asked in disbelief. Riley didnt answer her. He merely stood stock still, glaring fiercely at his brother. Well, in all fairness, Riley wasnt the only one, Alex said in mock-regretful tones, shaking his head, First there was Eddie, then Jason. Rileys actually a little late to the what-the-hell-do-youthink-youre-doing-with-Chelle party. Alex pulled her a little closer, against him, then whispered (LOUDLY) in her ear, I just dont get it, Chellie Bellie. Why does everyone want to keep us apart? Chelle started cracking up. Alex could always made her laugh. Riley, however, did not find Alexs playfulness quite as amusing. He started stalking towards his brother, growling Youre not funny. Get your hands off of her.

Wow. This was the first time that Chelle could see what people meant when they said he was dangerous. The look in Rileys eye and his body language could not be described as anything else. An aura of coiled rage radiated from him, and he reminded her of a lion poised to pounce on his prey. Alex, who was definitely more of a lover than a fighter when it came to social interactions, immediately threw his hands up in mock surrender and took a few steps back towards the kitchen door. On that note, I think Ill leave you two crazy kids alone. Dont do anything I wouldnt do. He winked at her as he quickly made his exit. Chelle turned back to Riley, who had stopped mid charge and was standing several feet away from her, anger rolling off of him in waves. She wasnt exactly sure why he was so upset. He couldn't seriously think that there was something was going on between her and Alex. No, she didn't think that was it. So, if that wasnt it, then what could it be? She took a few steps toward him, closing the space between them. She reached out to touch his arm and instinctively wrapped her hand around it. His biceps bunched beneath her fingers, causing a ripple of delicious tingling to flow through her like a river. Oh, my. She was definitely going to need to add 'biceps' to the long and ever-growing list of things that she was going to miss about Riley. He didnt look down at her, just stared straight ahead at the space that Alex had just occupied. Riley? For a few moments he didnt move, didnt even acknowledge that she had spoken. Chelle just waited, her hand still resting on his arm, unable to pull it away. Finally he looked down at her and although she had expected to see anger in his eyes what she saw instead was pain. Pain and confusion. Not knowing what else to do she wrapped her arms around him. His arms immediately encircled her and he held her tightly. She felt him breathing rapidly. Whats wrong, Riley? She asked, compassion and emotion welling up as she continued to hold him. She felt the intensity of their connection, palpable between them as they stood, encircled in one another's arms. He didnt answer. She knew she should probably just be silent and hold him for as long as he would let her, but she needed to know he was okay. Are you upset about Alex? No, he answered, holding her even tighter. She pulled back her head slightly so she could look into his eyes, What is it, then? Whats

wrong? His eyes flared with heat as he leaned down closer to her, resting his forehead against hers. Their labored breathing was the only sound in the quiet kitchen. She knew it was probably wrong of her to be so turned on when he was obviously so upset. But with the way he was looking at her, so primal, so intense well, she really couldnt help herself. Not to mention, she had been craving his touch for days now, so standing in his arms, his body pressed tightly against herswell, how could she not be affected? She was only human. What the hell? An angry voice interrupted their intimate moment. Oh greatEddie. Before she had a chance to turn toward the source of that outraged exclamation, she felt herself being bodily spun around. The next thing she knew, she was standing behind Riley, his arm holding her protectively in place. She peeked around Rileys sheltering hold and saw her brother at the other end of the kitchen. His face was red and he looked like his head was going to explode. She thought that, like in cartoons, she could almost see the steam rising from his ears. Chelle wasnt really sure why Riley had pulled her behind him. Her brother would never hurt her. If anybody needed protecting, it was Riley! Eddies stood, steaming, hands flexing open and shut. She was no body language expert, but...yeah. She didnt think that was a good sign. Ill kill you, Eddie said, low and intense, as he stepped toward her human shield. Eddie, stop it! Chelle heard herself say, sounding much more authoritative than she had ever been in the past. She pulled away from Rileys hold and stepped in front of him. Nothing is going on, she explained. Again...why poke the bear? Eddie didnt even glance her way, he merely continued staring at Riley. Is that true? He asked Riley, Is nothing going on? Chelle couldnt see Rileys face because she was standing directly in front of him, but she felt his body tense up. Oh no! Its none of your business. Rileys tone was eerily calm. Anger flared in Eddies eyes. Thats what I thought, Eddie said as he fisted up his hand and took another step toward Riley. Chelle reached out and pushed Eddies chest as hard as she could. Stop it, just stop! she pleaded.

Whats all this commotion? Grandpa J asked sternly as he walked in through the swinging doors. Chelle thought it was entirely possible that she had never been so happy to see anyone in her whole life! The energy in the room immediately changed the second the Colonel walked in. The men both relaxed their tense postures and took a step back from each other. Neither said anything. Chelle was so relieved that he had come in when he did, and broken up a confrontation that could have gotten uglywell, she could just kiss him! Everythings fine Grandpa J. Just a misunderstanding. Her voice sounded stronger than she felt. Grandpa J looked at both Eddie and Riley, clearly aware that something had just transpired. She didnt know what was being communicated between the three silent men, but she was sure that a message was being sent. After a few silent moments, Grandpa J nodded at her brother and Riley and then turned to her. He smiled and said, Now pretty lady, why dont you come on out and enjoy the party with me? Chelle was still breathing hard, from adrenaline this time, not arousal. She looked at both Riley and Eddie and figured - screw it, if they wanted to be idiots... so be it. She was done babysitting. She smiled up at Grandpa J as he offered her is arm, I would love to. As they walked out to re-join the party, Chelle decided that, as it happened, she had had all the party she could handle for the day. So, after thanking Grandpa J for rescuing her, she found Katie and let her know that she had worked all night and was heading home to get some rest. Katie looked disappointed and a little worried, but the two of them made plans to meet for lunch the next day and Chelle promised that there was nothing wrong that a good night's sleep couldn't fix. As Chelle walked out toward her car, she thought to herself...hmm...how lovely it would be if only that were true!

Chapter Twenty-five
Chelle had just finished off her second heaping bowl of Ben & Jerrys Half Baked when there was a knock on her door. She sighed. Dammit! She knew it was going to be her brother wanting to talk. She had realized this would probably happen, she just hadnt expected him to be over this soon. First he ruins my sexy hug, now he ruins my ice cream binge, she moped to herself as she trudged toward the front door. She knew her real issue, though, was not about the interruption but rather about the fact that she didnt want to answer questions about her and Riley. She wanted to keep what had transpired between the two of them private, sacred...but she knew her brother wouldnt leave it alone. That was never going to happen. Therefore, she figured she might as well just get it over with. Chelle opened the door and her heart immediately sped up to double or triple its normal rate. It felt like it would jump right out of her chest! Riley stood on her porch looking intense, and frankly sexier than she thought should be legal. Hi, she said when she realized she had just been standing there drooling. Hi. He looked down at the ground. Usually he radiated confidence, but right now he seemed unsure. She stood back opening the door wider, Do you want to come in? He looked tortured by her invitation, I cant. Ooookaay. Thinking she needed to lighten the mood, she smiled, Well, if it's because you're a vampire, then no worries. I just invited you in, so...you're in the clear. He looked confused. Alrighty, then. Not a big fan of vampire humor. SO...you and my brother didnt kill each other, I see. We worked it out. Really? And how did you do that? She asked. He asked questions and I answered them. What did he ask? If there was anything going on between us. What did you say? It was none of his business. Well, yeah. I was there for that part. Is that all he asked you? This was largely rhetorical. She knew for a fact that her brother would not have dropped it at

Its none of your business. No. She really wished at moments like these that guys were better communicators. If she was having this conversation with Katie, she would have every last thing that happened in the room, what was said outright and what was implied, and how each party felt about every single step along the way. Ugh, men! Well, what else did he ask? If I was in love with you. Holy catfish! She knew that curiosity killed the cat, but that didnt stop her. What did you say? That it didnt matter because I was leaving tomorrow. Her heart plummeted to the floor. She knew this day was coming - so why did she feel so shocked? Tomorrow? She asked, just to make sure. He nodded. I wanted to say goodbye. Her knees felt like they were going to give out on her. She didnt trust herself to remain standing. Tears were forming in her eyes, and she refused to cry in front of him. That was NOT going to happen! In order to avoid that, though, she needed to wrap this upnow. She put on her bravest face as she smiled up at him. Okay. Well, bye, then, she said as lightly as she could, waving as she moved to shut the door. The next thing she knew, Riley had stepped inside, shut the door, and had her backed up against the wall. She shook her head in disbelief, Youre like a ninja. He smiled down at her. She loved when he smiled. She wished he did it more often. He stepped even closer to her and her knees started to shake. Her body was flushed with arousal. Just his nearness alone was enough to rev her engines, but combine that with the overpowering intensity he was focusing on her, and she thought she might be more turned on than she had ever been in her entire life. He reached up and wiped his thumb across her bottom lip. She stopped breathing when he slowly moved across it again. He lifted his thumb away and she saw that there was chocolate on it. Was the ice cream good? he asked. His voice caused goosebumps to form on her arms.

She nodded, unable to speak. She traced her tongue along her bottom lip, trailing it slowly across the path he had just left with his thumb, making sure there was no more chocolate on it. He watched her greedily as she did this, and a groan escaped his mouth. His hand was fisted at his side, causing his biceps to pull his shirt tight across his skin. She wanted him so badly. She knew it wasnt the smart thing to want. She knew he was leaving. Tomorrow. She knew another night with Riley would be playing with fire. But, hell. She had spent her whole life being safe, doing what was right. With Riley, she just wanted to do what she wanted and, right now, she wanted him. She loved him. If this was going to be her last night with him she wanted to make it count. She would have plenty of time to mend her heart and pick up the pieces when he left. Decision made. She just had to clear up one thing, Were you seeing Megan for last few months? He took a step back, his brow furrowed, What? Megan told me you two were together for the last few months and that you just stopped talking to her. That it was because of me. He shook his head, clearly annoyed, We had been exchanging messages and, yes, I had planned on hooking up with her when I was here. But we werent together. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And the first night I got home, I told her it wasnt going to happen... Okay, she interrupted him. He looked at her intensely, Chelle, I swear I believe you, She assured him, I've seen how women get with Eddie. I know how they can build things up in their head. I never led her on. I know. She let out a strangled laugh, Believe me, I know. His eyes grew serious, Chelle, dont do that. Youre nothing like Megan. Youre different. I I You what? Chelle knew that it wouldnt change anything if she heard him say he loved her, but she still wanted to hear it. He had made her say it, dammit. She deserved to hear it. Even if it was only once. --- ~ --Riley looked into Chelles eyes and knew what she was waiting to hear. Hell, he knew what he wanted to tell her. But he couldnt. He wasnt about to give her any hope that they had a future. It doesnt matter, Im leaving tomorrow.

He saw a look of disappointment flutter across her face. But it was quickly replaced with something soft. Vulnerable. Sexy. She swallowed hard. But we still have tonight. He knew what she was offering and he wanted more than anything in the world to take her up on it. But that would be selfish, and he had been selfish enough when it came to her. He didnt want to be that anymore. He should have never come inside the house. That was the wrong move. But, dammit, when she had started closing the door, and he pictured her going back and crying in her ice cream, he couldnt stop himself. Now, standing in front of her, his heart was racing a mile a minute. All of his blood that should have been feeding his brain had flowed down to his rock-hard shaft. He was having a difficult time thinking straight while dealing with the overwhelming feeling of arousal pulsing through him. He wanted her. He needed her. He shouldn't. But he did. Somehow sensing his indecision, Chelle lifted herself up on her tippy-toes and pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. God, her lips were so soft. I know you're leaving, she said as she moved to kiss the other side of his mouth, I know this wont change anything. She pressed her lips firmly against his before lowering back down to her normal, flat-footed stance and stripping off her tank top. She looked up at him with a seductive smile, adding But we do still have tonight. He snapped. All the self-control he had been doing his best to hold onto vanished, slipping through his fingers as easily as sand. He reached out and grabbed her waist pulling her to him and lifting her up off the ground. He took two steps forward, stopping when her back was firmly against the wall. Her legs wrapped tightly around him and he dipped his head and sucked her taught nipple in between his lips, running his tongue across the surface. Oh God, Riley, she whimpered as her nails dug into his shoulders. He couldnt bring himself to walk away without holding her, feeling her, kissing her, making love to her at least one more time. Even though he knew he deserved to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for Most Selfish Asshole he just couldnt resist taking what she was offering - one more night together. But he needed to get one thing straight first. He lifted his head and stared into her eyes, Chelle I need you to know you are nothing like Megan. Her gorgeous heavy-lidded eyes were filled with a heartbreaking combination of confusion and need. She stared at him, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck, through her labored breathing

she tentatively answered, Okay. Her response was far from convincing. He wished he could spell it out for her. He wanted to be able to tell her what she meant to him. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her, how much he needed her, how desperately he wished things were different. That he was different. Chelle, Her name came out as a growl even to his own ears. Frustration boiled up in him. His hands tightened as his fingers dug into her hips. He felt a tremor run through her body as she moaned in pleasure from the pressure his flexing grip caused. All confusion vanished, her eyes now filled only with desire. Damn, she was so sexy. It took every ounce of the self-discipline his military training had instilled in him not to get sidetracked. I need you to know youre not like her or anyone else Chelle. It was part plea part command. He knew he didnt have the right to demand anything from her, but that didnt stop him. He had to know that she knew she was different. Special. Perfect. He leaned in closer to her, his lips brushed against hers as he asked, Do you? Do you know that? Yes. She answered as she rolled her hips against his straining erection. Her head fell back against the wall. She relaxed her arms as she ran her fingers down the back of his neck, across his broad shoulders, finally landing on his biceps where she traced the lines of his muscle several times, almost as if she was committing the feel of his upper arm to memory. He was already rock hard and just the simple sensation of her soft fingertips brushing up and down his bicep was so erotic he felt as though he was going to explode before he was even inside of her. Do you know that? She asked him, her attention still focused on her slender fingers trailing his up and down his arm. What? The intense arousal pumping fiercely through his entire body made it difficult for him to follow her line of questioning. Do you know that you are not like anyone else? She asked sweetly as she lifted her eyes to his. Fuck. His heart broke wide open inside of his chest. That was Chelle. His Chelle. Even now she wasnt thinking of herself. Her only concern was him. He couldnt speak. He couldnt breathe. He hadnt cried since the day of his mothers funeral when he was twelve years old, but he felt moisture filling his eyes. He needed her. Now. He crushed his mouth to hers as he stalked down the hallway, carrying Chelle to her bedroom. He laid her on the bed and as he looked down at her he saw the same level of desperation and desire

that was flooding through him mirrored in her eyes. Neither spoke as they both quickly stripped out of their clothes. For a moment time felt as though it had stopped. Riley stood above Chelle, they both just stared at each other. Naked. Bare. Raw. Chelles eyes hungrily traveled down his body. When her gaze fell to his raging erection he felt it jump at the attention. A blush crept up her cheeks and she licked her lips. God, he loved her. As he climbed on the bed she opened her legs and wrapped them around him. He pulled her arms above her head and held her wrists in place with one hand. With the other he gripped his shaft positioning it at her core. He rubbed the head of his swollen erection up and down her opening. She was wet. Swollen. Ready. A sound of need escaped her mouth as she tilted her hips seeking connection. He leaned down and kissed her full lips softly as he pushed his length inside of her slowly. Savoring every sensation. Her body beneath him. Her lips pressed to his. Her inner walls squeezing him as he slid deeper into her. He may not be able to tell her with words how he felt, how much he loved her, craved her, needed her. But he damn well could show her. He knew that maybe they did only have tonight. Maybe this was the last time they would ever be together hell, maybe it was the last time they would ever see each other. If it was, then he sure as hell going to make it count.

Chapter Twenty-six
Riley and Alex made their way to the back booth of Gerard's Diner where Jason and Bobby were waiting for them. Riley had left Chelles around six a.m. He hadnt wanted to wake her, she was sleeping so peacefully. His sleeping beauty. But now he was wishing he would have gotten just one more kiss. Yeah, right. Who was he kidding? Riley knew just one more would never be enough when it came to Chelle. Man, you look like shit, Bobby said as they approached the table. Hey, watch it, junior. I can still kick your ass, Riley said as he and Alex sat down. I wasnt being a smartass. You really dont look good, Bobby clarified, looking concerned. I just havent been sleeping well. Speaking of sleeping Alex began turning towards him. From his tone, Riley could already tell he wasnt going to like what he said. Where exactly did you sleep last night, Cassanova? Riley was silent as he looked over the menu, completely ignoring Alex. Where did he sleep? Jason asked Alex, looking confused. When no one answered Jason looked at all three of them and asked, What am I missing? Hazel, their waitress, appeared with a carafe of coffee and four cups. She put the cups down, poured them each coffee, and then pulled out her pad and pencil to take their order. Even though Hazel was pushing seventy and had known them her entire life, she still blushed when Alex asked if she was still taking her Pilates class. When she moved away from the table, Jason asked once again, Whats going on? Where did you sleep? Riley did not want to discuss this, so he took a drink of his coffee. Alex, never one to let something drop, chimed in, Maybe we're asking the wrong question. There may not have been a lot of sleeping going on. Riley shook his head. He knew if he let him see he was getting to him it would only make things worse, but he was having a tough time hiding his frustration. How was the honeymoon? Riley asked Jason in a clear attempt to change the subject. Great, Jason answered before asking again, Where were you last night? And why am I the last to know? Alex nodded his head towards Jason, Gotta love middle child syndrome. Jason gave him a look that clearly telegraphed how unamused he was.

Alex smiled, All I know is that after that little slideshow yesterday Rambo over here pulled me into the kitchen and wanted to kick my ass for 'hanging all over Chelle' at your wedding. If I had wanted to kick your ass, you would've got your ass kicked. Hey, look who decided to join the conversation. Alex smiled smugly. You spent the night with Chelle? Jason sounded genuinely shocked. Does Eddie know you hooked up with his sister? She is not a hook-up. The words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. Great, he all but admitted that something had happened between him and Chelle. Jasons eyes grew wide, Holy shit! You love her. Riley took another drink of his coffee. What the hell is wrong with you guys? Alex shook his head in disgust, Youre droppin like flies. First Bobby, then Jason, now you. What? Is there something in the water? I better stick with bottled just to be safe. What are you going to do about it? Bobby asked sounding much older and wiser than his twenty-four years. Damn, Riley thought, the kid didnt say much but when he did he got right to the point. Nothing. Im leaving. Thats your big plan. Just leave. Alex mocked. Riley shrugged. Well, good, then. I'll tell you the truth. All this talk of me and Chelle has made me think...might not be a bad idea. I might want to get to know her a little better, Alex goaded Riley. Riley knew Alex was just trying to push his buttons, but that didnt change the fact he wanted to punch him in his face. His hands flexed. Jason, always the peacemaker spoke up, Alex, stop being a dick. Hazel came bustling out of the kitchen with a large tray of their food. After distributing it all she said, Its so good to see all of you boys in one place. I bet your mamas lookin down from heaven just as pleased as punch with how you all turned out. As she moved away from the table, an awkward silence fell. They never discussed their mom. Bobby broke the silence, What was she like? I dont really remember her. Jason and Riley looked at each other, and then Jason said reluctantly, She was sad a lot, and when she wasnt sad, she was really happy. She would stay up for three days straight and then be in bed for weeks. I remember that, Alex said quietly. She was never a normal mom. Some people just arent cut out to have a family. Riley added.

They ate their food in silence, a pall having fallen on their mood of lightly-combative camaraderie. Riley remembered the times he had shared with his mom, good and bad. Now that he thought about it, there had been more good times than he would have estimated. So is that what you think? Bobby asked Riley. What? Riley asked, the question pulling him roughly back out of his reflections. Do you think youre not cut out to have a family? Bobby clarified. Riley just shrugged. Why would you think that? Jason asked. Youre nothing like her. Riley remained silent. You think youre like her? Alex asked incredulously. Dad always said I reminded him of her, Riley said matter-of-factly. Alex looked at Riley as if he was crazy, Dude! Thats because you are the only one who has her hair and eye color. Not because you act like her. I left, didnt I? Riley snapped back. Whoa, you left to go into the military. Jason leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table, You dedicated twelve years of your life to serving your country, and you did it well and without complaint. Mom couldnt even hold down a job waitressing here for more than a couple weeks. She was ill, Riley. She was bi-polar. Youre not. Riley shook his head. It doesnt matter, anyway. Im leaving. Wow, and I thought that David the Douchebag was a prick for what he did to Chelle, Alex said, shaking his head slowly. Bobby and Jason exchanged glances, clearly thinking that there was a better-than-even chance that Riley was going to kick Alexs ass for saying what he did. But, Riley wouldn't do that. Alex was right, he was only speaking the truth. Riley was a prick for leaving Chelle. Alex was doing nothing more than simply pointing out the obvious. Riley knew it. He also knew that dick move or not - it was for the best. She deserved better. --- ~ --Chelle had woken up to an empty bed with a note lying on the pillow Riley had slept on. Good morning, Sleeping Beauty. I made breakfast, its warming in the oven. Thank you for being you. She knew it wasnt a declaration of love by any means. She knew that it was his way of saying goodbye. She knew that her time with him was over. She also knew that she wouldnt take back a second of the time she had spent with him. The days and hours that she had shared with Riley had been the best moments of her life. Even

if she had to spend the rest of that life repairing her broken heart - or even if it never healed - she still wouldnt take back what they had shared. Now, as Chelle walked into The Grill, she saw that Katie was already at a table overlooking the river. The moment Katie saw her she stood and pulled her into a huge bear hug, Im so sorry. Great, Chelle thought, she knows. Im fine, Chelle said as she pulled away and sat down across from her diamond friend. Jason had breakfast with Riley this morning before he left for New Orleans, Katie said by way of explanation. Oh, thats good. Chelle replied distantly. Jason said he was a mess, Katie continued, clearly looking for a response any response. Chelle just nodded. She really didnt want to talk about Riley. She knew if she did, the waterworks would start and, honestly, she was just so tired of crying. At first, Jason didnt want to say anything. Probably because he knew I would tell you. What would give him that idea, I wonder? Chelle smiled. Gee, I dont know, Katie shrugged faux-innocently. Then she waggled her eyebrows, teasing, But, I will tell you - with a little encouragement, I got him to tell me everything. Well, I think its everything. Its definitely a lot even if its not everything. Katie, what did Jason say? Chelle interrupted. Katie had a tendency of rambling when she was excited or nervous. Normally, Chelle thought it was cute - but not when it came to information about Riley. He said that Riley basically admitted that hes in love with you, and he's pretty much only leaving because he thinks hes not cut out for a family. He thinks hes like their mom! Katie leaned back in her chair, obviously proud of herself, smiling widely. Apparently she thought this was much better news than Chelle did. Why are you smiling about that? Chelle asked. Katie eyes widened, Hello! He basically said He. Loves. You. Okay, well...first of all, I dont know how you basically say that but, that's beside the point right now. Secondly, did you not hear the part where you told me he left because he doesnt want a family? No, I said he doesnt think hes cut out for a family. Theres a difference, Katie enthused. Well, he's still gone. And he never actually said he loved me. So I dont really see how theres a difference, Chelle stated flatly. She wasnt trying to dampen Katies excitement, she was just being realistic. Katies face dropped a little, I know, but...I just think that if two people love each other; then

somehow they'll find their way back to one another. Chelle sighed. Katie, thats sweet, but not everybody gets a happily ever after like you and Jason. Chelle knew her friends heart was in the right place but she thought she might be a tad optimistic. This was probably due to the fact that she had just lived her own fairy tale and ended up with the prince but whatever the reason, Chelle could not afford to give in to this kind of magical thinking. What you and Jason have is special and very rare. I know, but I just thought...well, you know. That Riley is Jason and Bobbys brother. You see how they are! When Sloan men fall in love, they fall hard, Katie said, again desperately attempting to put a positive spin on the situation. True. But he is also Alexs brother, and you see how he is, Chelle stated bluntly. Oh, I didnt think about that, Katie said, slumping her shoulders, her whole posture telegraphing defeat. Katie, really. Im going to be fine. I went into this thing with Riley with my eyes wide open. I knew what the outcome would be, I knew how hard it would be, but I also knew it would be worth it. And it was, Chelle said, meaning every word. Katie brightened a little, Well, since we cant fix that problem today, what do you say we order our lunches to go, stop by the grocery store, get a bottle...or maybe two...of wine, and then go to your place and watch Good Will Hunting? Chelle really wanted to cry now. She would have to come up with a new 'go to' movie. How about Playing by Heart? Chelle asked. Okay, sure! Katie agreed as she motioned for the waitress to come over so that they could place their orders to go, Anything you want, DFF. Oh, Chelle thought for the second time in as many days after a conversation with Katie, how lovely that would be if only it were actually true.

Chapter Twenty-seven
Riley shut down his laptop just as Landon came through the grey office door. Hey man, those blondes with the double Ds at the end of the bar keep asking about you. Oh yeah? Riley couldnt have cared less. Did you see them? Landon asked as he held up his hands in front of his chest, rounded slightly, indicating that the blondes had big racks. Yep, couldnt miss 'em. All three of the women were pouring out of their shirts. Maybe at one time in his life that would have appealed to him, but not now. Not since Chelle. He had been down in New Orleans for four weeks and two days, and he hadnt even gone an hour without thinking about her. She occupied his mind constantly. He had been checking her Facebook page several times a day, hoping she would post something, anything so he could know how she was. She hadnt. He had spoken to Eddie about once a week, but there was no way he was going to ask him. It was bad enough he knew that Riley had slept with his sister, he didnt want to remind him of that fact by asking about her. He kept thinking, hoping, praying that the pain and emptiness would ease, would subside. Wasnt it widely known and accepted that time heals all wounds? But in his case, time away from Chelle was doing the opposite to the wound. It was making it deeper. So, whats up? Dax and I are going to take them out. They want to walk down Bourbon Street. You down? Rileys phone rang and when he saw the number he told Landon, Ive gotta take this. Sorry. Man, you werent gonna to go anyway. Landon shook his head in disappointment as he left the office, shutting the door loudly behind him. Hey, Pops. He hadnt talked to his dad since he left town. Hey, Riley, how you been? his dad asked. Pretty good. Riley was actually a little nervous. His dad normally didnt do small talk, so Riley wasnt sure where this could be headed. How about yourself? Well, actually, I had another episode with my heart last night. Im fine. They kept me overnight for observation but Im home now. They already released me. I can be there in a few hours. Riley had always thought of Bob Sloan as invincible, and he hated the feeling that washed over him as he was now faced with such compelling evidence that he wasn't. He had been in Afghanistan when his dad had had his first heart attack and hadnt been able to

get home, but now he could, and he would be there for him. No need, Im really fine. I already spoke to Jason and told him that I would be handing over the reins of Sloan Construction to him. The doctors think that with medication, diet and exercise - if I take care of myself - Ill be around for quite some time. But thats not why I called. What else is wrong? Now Riley really felt nervous. Well Bobby and Alex came by the hospital last night. We started talking about your mom, and they told me that you thought you were like her, because I had told you that you reminded me of her. Damn, his brothers were worse than gossiping school girls. Riley remained quiet. Riley, if I ever gave you the idea that you had the same issues your mom had, Im sorry, son. The only reason I ever said that is because you have her eyes. Thats all. None of you, thank God, have any of the symptoms of her disorder. Riley felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off of him. He didnt know why hearing his dad say the same words that his brother had said over a month ago hit him so differently, but they did. Maybe they were all right. Maybe he really wasnt like her. You know Chelle stopped by my room, too. She was working the night shift. That girl kept me company on every one of her breaks and even snuck me in an extra Jell-O. Yep, that sounded like Chelle. Riley smiled as he pictured her sitting beside his dad, handing him the clandestine Jell-O and swearing him to secrecy. Please dont let your moms troubles dictate your future, Riley. I wont, Dad. Riley assured his father. I know I didnt handle things that great when your mom left, and then later when she passed, but I want you to know Riley - if you ever need to talk, Im here. Thanks, Dad. As Riley and his dad ended their call his mind was spinning. Did what his dad just tell him really change anything? Or was Riley just trying to make it that way because he missed Chelle so damn much? He sat absentmindedly scrolling through his text messages when he saw the message that Mindy had sent him after he and Chelle had had dinner at her and Tommys house. 'Great seeing you 2night. So glad you got to meet the little princess. LOVED Chelle! She is a keeper! SO get your head out of your ass and make that happen! Luv Ya! XOXO' He sighed, and then a chilling thought hit him. When he'd been speaking with Eddie at the barbecue, he'd said something that just now struck Riley as telling. In his efforts to remind Riley that he wasn't good enough for Chelle, he'd said, Dude, it's nothing personal. It's not like you're a bad

guy. You're just like me. But look how that turned out. We're just not cut out for relationships, and I don't want my sister getting caught up with someone like us. But the truth was Eddie had not done anything to end his relationship. Lacey had left Eddie and her small baby daughter because she was not cut out for relationships! Apparently, the end of his marriage had given Eddie some deep-seated issues about himself and his worthiness to find happiness and give it to his partner, and he had projected those issues onto Riley, as well, as a way to protect his sister. Damn it! And Riley had been quick enough to believe him because of his issues with his mother...but that didn't make it true. Riley realized that he had been keeping himself away from Chelle because of the issues of two women who had left their families one of whom he barely remembered and one of whom he had not even met - but those were NOT his issues! He could see that clearly now. He felt free. Shit, what the hell was he doing in New Orleans!? --- ~ --Chelle splashed water on her face as she breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. She looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes and her face looked a little thinner. She was tired. Exhausted, really. It had only been a month and she knew she had a long road ahead of her. The doubles she was working werent helping, but after yesterday, she knew that wasnt the only reason she felt like this. She walked into her bedroom and put the last of her toiletries in her overnight bag. Her phone beeped, alerting her that the cab should be here any minute to take her to the airport. She wasnt looking forward to this trip. She had no grand illusions that things were going to work out. She didnt believe in fairy talesat least not for her. But she needed to face this, and hopefully get some kind of closure. Yep, she was a realist. Closure was probably the most she could hope for. She grabbed her bag, her purse and her phone. She didnt think she was forgetting anything. She was pondering this as she heard a loud knock on her front door. Weird. Wouldn't the cab just honk? She hustled out of her room and, as she opened the door for the cabdriver, she was distracted, going over her mental list to make sure that she hadnt forgotten anythingOh shoot, her keys. Just a minute, she told the driver as she distractedly turned back into the house, Just let me

grab my keys. Hi. She heard the deep voice reply, and she froze. She knew that voice. When she looked up to confirm her suspicions, she dropped her bags. Riley, she said. Shock completely numbed her entire body. Her heart stopped, she felt like the whole world was spinning while she stood still in the middle of all the whirling commotion. She realized she wasnt breathing. She needed to breathe. Breathe, she told herself, breathe. A concerned look crossed his gorgeous face, Chelle, do you need to sit down? She nodded her head, Probably. He led her inside and guided her as she sat down on her couch. He crouched in front of her and placed his hands on her knees rubbing them gently in circles, Breathe, Chelle. She nodded her head trying to do just that but with his large hands rubbing her knees and thighs she was having a hard time concentrating on something as insignificant as oxygen. Are you okay? He asked. Well, the room has stopped spinning, she thought, but now I'm light-headed for a completely different reason. Instead of saying that out loud, she just nodded again. He rose and pulled the ottoman over so he was still seated in front of her. What was he doing here, in Harpers Crossing? Then she remembered. His dad. Of course, his dad had suffered a mild heart attack a few days ago. He must be in town visiting him. Forcing herself to speak she asked, Are you here visiting your dad? No, Im here because I forgot to give you something. He handed her a plastic bag. She recognized it as the one from Old Time Photos. Ummmm...he flew back to give her their picture? She was pretty sure he could have just mailed it. Open it, he instructed. She did and pulled out what looked like a large Hallmark card. On the front was their picture, her in her saloon girl attire, him all decked out in his cowboy gear, on the top of the page it said Whats the story? She opened it, it was the same picture from a different angle with bold words written above and beneath it. On the top it said Riley and Chelle then on the bottom large letters read, Happily Married. This was their last first date. Oh. My. God. She was going to throw up. She looked up from the card and saw that Riley had gotten down on one knee, an open ring

box containing a beautiful diamond solitaire in his hand. I know I said I wasnt the forever kind of guy, but I was wrong. I want to be your forever. Will you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me? Dread filled her body. Oh, no. He knew. Her eyes filled with tears. Who told you? A look of shock and confusion crossed his face, What? Who told you? she repeated. She saw the confused look in his eye. Oops...maybe he didnt know. --- ~ --Riley knew that, in response to his proposal, there was a possibility that Chelle might cry, yell at him, and even kick him out. He was hoping that she would smile and say yes. But he had not expected her to ask him a question he didnt understand. He stood, Who told me what? He saw tears forming in her eyes and noticed her hands were shaking as she covered her stomach protectively. Was she sick or wait, was she? No way. He then looked around and saw the bags that she had dropped when she had opened the door. The puzzle pieces were starting to come together in his mind and he was beginning to see the big picture. Where were you going? he asked, trying not to get his hopes up. To see you, she answered, the color draining from her face. Why? He asked, trying to calm his racing heart. She swallowed hard and he could see her hands were shaking even harder. He wanted to reach out and comfort her, to tell her everything would be alright. He just needed to hear the words first. To tell you, Imthat Im She struggled to get the words out. Fuck it, he couldnt wait. He blurted out, Youre pregnant. She nodded as the tears fell from her eyes. With my baby, He said in a reverent whisper. She nodded once again. He felt like his heart was about to burst at the seams. He pulled her up into his arms and held her as she cried. He knew she was upset, but he couldnt help but smile. He didn't want to seem insensitive, so probably best to get that all out of the way while he was looking out over her shoulder, out of eyeline. He really couldn't help it, though - he felt like he had just won the lottery. He tried to comfort Chelle, murmuring Shh, its gonna be okay. Im here, Im here baby. She looked up into his eyes, gasping out between sobs, I dontwant youto marry me

because Im.pregnant. He held her face in his hands wiping her tears away, God, she was so beautiful. Baby listen to me, I didnt even know that you were pregnant when I asked! Her lips quivered and he couldnt stop himself. He had to kiss her. He had to kiss the mother of his child. He leaned down slowly and brushed his lips against hers. He felt her body relax into his and he slowly deepened the kiss, stroking his thumbs across her jawline. She sighed and her body melted into his. He peppered kisses on her cheeks, which tasted of the salt of her tears, then the tip of her nose, her forehead, her eyes. He wanted to kiss every inch of her, to claim her as his, and he would. But first he knew that they needed to talk. As hard as it was, he made himself stop showering her with soft kisses. When he looked into her eyes now, he didnt see tears there, just passion. God, he loved her so much. Chelle, will you please marry me, be my wife, have my baby, raise a family with me? He wanted to strip her out of her clothes and make love to her. He needed to feel her, to be inside of her. But first he desperately needed to hear her say yes. She looked conflicted, unsure. Her breathing was labored and he thought she might be about to cry again. What? He asked, Whats wrong baby? What about New Orleans? Your bar? she asked. I already told them I was moving back home. Im still an owner, Ill probably need to take trips down there every once in a while but I can do a lot of what I need to from here. Honestly, they were so tired of me moping around the place that I'm about half convinced they were planning to ask me to go back to 'silent partner' status, anyway, he concluded ruefully. She nodded, but still didnt look convinced. He knew something else must be bothering her, and he needed to get to the bottom of it. Chelle, whats really wrong? Her lip started to quiver again, and she said in a small voice, Youve never even said if you love me. Oh God, he felt like such an ass. How could he be screwing this up so badly? He looked straight in her gorgeous almond shaped eyes and tried to convey what he felt inside for her, I love you Chelle. I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone. I love you so much it didnt even occur to me that you wouldnt know how much I love you. Chelle, baby, I dont deserve you and I know I messed things up by leaving. I am so sorry for that. I am so sorry I didnt believe enough in myself to stay and fight for us. I know I hurt you but please...please let me make it up to you for the rest of our lives. She smiled up at him and he knew for a fact that making her smile was what he was put on this earth to do.

Did you mean what you just said? She said, mimicking back the question he had asked her in San Francisco when he overheard her conversation with Katie. Yes, He parroted back the answer she had given to him. Ask me again. He smiled as his heart filled to capacity with love for this woman. Rachelle Thomas, you are the most amazing woman I have ever met. You are caring, loving, funny, and sexy as hell. I love you. I love your heart. I love your mind. And, God, I love your smile. I want to make you smile for the rest of our lives. He wiped the tears from her face as she smiled up at him, I want to go to bed every night with you in my arms, where you belong. I want to make you breakfast and make sure you always remember your jacket and your keys. She laughed through her tears as he got down on one knee, I want to take care of you and our baby always, forever. Chelle will you marry me? Her smile widened as she lifted one shoulder in a shrug, Well since you threw in breakfast...yes, I will. Relief and elation coursed through his body. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his cheek to her stomach. She ran her fingers through his hair. God, I missed you, he said, holding her tightly. He never wanted to let her go. I missed you, too. She continued to rake her fingers through his hair. Theres really a baby in there? Our babys in there? He asked, his voice filled with wonderment, his face still pressed against her belly. He just needed to hear her say it again. Yes, our babys in there, She smiled down at him, her beautiful brown eyes dancing , I love you, Riley. I love you so much. He stood and picked her up, carrying her into the bedroom where he planned on starting his make-it-up-to-her plan. She giggled and smiled up at him, her eyes gleaming with love and trust. She was looking at him like he was truly her hero. He felt it all the way to the deepest part of his soul. He realized that, for the first time in his life, he felt whole. He had everything he needed wrapped in his arms. She was his forever. She was his world. She was his home.

Sneak Peek: My Only - Alex & Jamie


THE CROSSROADS SERIES

Coming August 2013 Sneak Peak from My Only The alarm on Jamies watch beeped and she was glad that she had taken the extra precaution to set it. She had been so wrapped up in reading the patient chart, she hadnt even noticed that the hour had flown by. Alex Sloans history was fascinating. Between his mothers illness, his four brothers, his time in the service, and his fathers ailing health she concluded that this man must have quite a life story. Add to that he was only twenty-six, just two years older than her. The crowd parted as Jamie made her way towards the bed. She smiled at the family and friends as she passed them. She had inadvertently eavesdropped over the last hour (hey, they were in a small confined space) and to say that these people were colorful and amusing was the understatement of the century! After listening to them she knew one thing to be absolutely true, these people loved each other and would do anything for one another. She had never had that kind of support system in her life. It had been her and her mom and whatever boyfriend her mom happened to have at the time. She had never had a group of people that she could depend on. In fact the one certainty that had never changed in her life was that Jamie could depend on one person and one person onlyJamie. The couple she thought she remembered being Jason and Katie were standing beside Alexs bed and were the last barrier she had between her and the patient. They moved out of her way and Jamie saw Alex Sloan for the first time.

She stood, momentarily paralyzed. Completely breathless by what she saw. Unable to move. Unable to think. He wasbeautiful. Lying perfectly still with his eyes closed, she stared, looking at his long dark lashes that lay resting on his cheek. His strong jawline was peppered with stubble. His skin was probably a bit pale but was still a lovely olive tone. His lips, she didnt even know where to begin with his lips. They were perfect. His chestnut brown hair looked so full and inviting she wanted to run her fingers through it. And even though he had a cast on one arm and an awful hospital gown on, she could see that he had a broad strong chest. He had shoulders that looked made for someone to lean on. Her knees went weak. Her watch beeped once again and it snapped her out of her massive lust-induced trance. She forced herself to move into action, checking his vital signs almost on auto-pilot. She was so embarrassed by her reaction to him she didnt dare glance around the room at her captive audience. She knew they must think she was ridiculous. And they wouldnt be wrong, because right now she was ridiculous. Never had she experienced a physical reaction to just seeing someone. And she most definitely had never been rendered speech-less, motion-less, thought-less at the simple sight of another human being. After checking some of his vitals she knew it was time to wake him up. She spoke loudly, Hey Alex, time to wake up. He didnt move, she spoke again, a little louder this time, Alex, can you open your eyes for me? He stirred and opened his eyes. The moment they locked with hers she felt like she couldnt catch her breath. They were gorgeous. A light emerald shade in the center rimmed with a darker hue of green. Whoa nelly, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Work, she reminded herself, she had to work. She got her mini flashlight out of her pocket and leaned over him to check his irises. Hi, He said smiling at her as she examined his eyes. His voice caused a flutter in her belly and lower, Hi. She repeated as an unintentional smile spread across her face. She was having a hard time concentrating on her job. He stared at her and made her feel things that she hadnt feltever. But she had to focus. Do you know where you are? She asked, trying to judge his mental awareness. Yes. He replied. Where are you? She asked, being more specific.

He smiled even though she could tell by his countenance that he was in a significant amount of pain. Even with the medication he was on, he had to be seriously uncomfortable. Lying down, in bed, looking at the most beautiful girl in the world. He winked at her. Laughter spread throughout the room and she heard several people comment on his answer. Hes going to be fine. His dad said. Well at least we know the head trauma didnt do too much damage. One of his brothers said. Yep, thats Alex. Another brother added. Not even a beam can knock sense into that boy. She heard Grandpa J say. She laughed a little and shook her head. Do you know what year it is? Yes. He continued smiling, either unaware or just completely ignoring his family's comments. What year is it? She asked, again more specifically. 2013. He answered correctly. Do you know your name? Yes. Whats your name? She asked as she pressed the stethoscope to his chest. Ill tell you mine if you tell me yours. He smiled again, staring directly into her eyes as she listened to his heart. Tremors spread through her like a wild fire. She was glad no one had a stethoscope on her chest right now because he had just made her heart jump, and her pulse race. Even her palms were getting a little sweaty. Wow, how this guy was pulling off cheesy lines like this after what he had been through she had no idea. But, it was impressive. Jamie. She smiled as she stared at his chest, trying to hide the twinkle she felt sparkling in her eyes. He lifted his head and she glanced up. He was smiling a smile that let her know he hadnt missed her reaction and he definitely had a twinkle of his own in his eye, Alex. Deep breath, Alex. She instructed. She saw him wince as he inhaled. How is your pain on a scale from one to ten, ten being the worst? She asked trying to get back on track. Professional. She was a professional, she reminded herself. She was a nurse. She was here to help him. Six. He answered.

Okay this is a PCA, She lifted the small hand held button that was connected to his IV of Fentanyl, when you need a hit just press the button. Got it. He laid his head back as she placed the device close to his right hand. His fingers brushed against hers as she pulled her hand away and a chill ran the complete length of her body. She had no idea what was going on with her! Maybe she needed to have sex even more than she had originally thought. She took a deep breath to try and steady herself, I want you to be as comfortable as possible. So if you need anything, dont hesitate to ask. Thats a loaded statement. He said smiling, his eyes drifting down her body as he looked to be studying every inch of her. She thought she might be in serious danger of blushing. She didnt know how he managed to be charming when those lines coming out of other guys mouths would have her rolling her eyes with disgust. As his eyes traveled back up to her face she noticed that they were beginning to droop, and he had dark circles underneath them. He needed to rest. But first she was sure there were a few people here that would like to talk to him. Okay, well my work here is done, Ill let you visit with your family. She said as she started to back away to make room for his visitors. He reached out and grabbed her hand before she had a chance to slip away, Jamie. She turned and looked down at him, Yes. Can I ask you something now? Yes. She replied, unable to tear her gaze away from his intoxicating, vivid green eyes. Will you marry me? He asked with a sexy tempting half-smile on his face as his eyes were drifting shut. Yes. She heard herself reply in a whisper. Good. He said, his smile widening right before he shut his eyes and passed back out. As soon as his eyes were closed and the spell that he had somehow managed to cast over her was broken, Jamie realized what she had just said. Oh. My. God. She wanted to die. Well, not die, but she definitely wanted to crawl under a rock and live out the rest of her life of complete and total humiliation in peace. Grace stepped beside her, she patted Alexs leg, Thanks for humoring him sweetie. I once had to tell a patient that I knew where his buried treasure was and was going to go dig it up for him. There were chuckles in the room, Chelle laughed. I once had to tell a woman in labor that I would call the police and have her husband arrested for impregnating her and putting her in so much

pain. Are you going to try and get me arrested? Her husband, Riley she thought it was, put his arms lovingly around his wife. Maybe, so you better be nice to me. She teased. Forever. He said staring deeply into her eyes. Forever. She smiled as he bent down and kissed her softly. Okay, obviously they were having a private moment, Jamie thought to herself. She stepped back into her corner as the crowd began dispersing. Now that Alex had woken up some of them decided to head home. She took the chance while everyone was distracted, saying their goodbyes, to try and catch her breath from what had just happened. She knew it wasnt a real proposal. Alex had not just really proposed to her. But she couldnt shake the feeling that had just washed over her when he had asked her. And she couldnt, for the life of her, begin to understand why she had said, YES! She appreciated the fact that Grace had bailed her out of the rather embarrassing faux-pas but she hadnt been humoring the patient. Nope, she had really been completely swept up in his eyes and the way he was looking at her and said yes! She needed to get control over whatever was going on with her and quick. He needed her to be professional and on top of her game. Not love-sick and delusional. Oh Lord! It was going to be a long night.

Excerpt: Sweet Reunion


THE HOPE FALLS CHRONICLES

Available Now Excerpt from Sweet Reunion As Amanda moved the bite-size chicken pieces and chopped vegetables around the saut pan in front of her, her head swam with conflicted emotions. Was it always going to be this way? If Justin did decide to stay and run the adventure resort with her, was her consciousness going to forever exist in such a state of unbalance? Karina, Sam, and Lauren had gone to visit Karina's grandmother, albeit reluctantly. They hadn't wanted to leave Amanda alone, but Amanda had insisted, coming just short of physically shoving them out the door. I need to get my head on straight! she had told them, The only way I am going to accomplish that is with some serious soul searching and contemplation. And, barring that, a little 'come to Jesus' meeting with myself. Trust me! An hour alone will do me a world of good. I'll make dinner, and be a whole new woman by the time you get back. So, the rest of the Fabulous Four had departed amidst skeptical expressions and admonitions to call if she needed anything. And now Amanda was by herself, cooking and contemplating, and not a whole lot seemed to be moving forward. She had started out feeling confused and vulnerable, and that was squarely where

she still found herself. It didn't help that she had had ZERO hours of sleep the night before! Maybe it was time to try the 'come to Jesus' meeting. She heard a knock at the back door which led into the kitchen, and turned around to see the very source of her confusion and angst standing there, his handsome face framed in the glass pane of the exterior door like a finely wrought portrait. A tremor ran through her from head to toe, but she quickly reminded herself that she could not show him her weaknesses. She again thought of her sleepless night, and noticed how well-rested he looked. She couldn't let him see she was coming apart at the seams! No, she was only going to show him a completely strong and together facade. She quickly pasted a smile on her face, striving for as natural an expression as possible, but truthfully not even caring if it came off as slightly artificial as long as her face didn't betray the roiling emotions just below the surface, it could look as plastic as a mannequin's for all she cared. She crossed to the back door, opened it, and stood aside, inviting him in. Is this a bad time? he asked as he entered. Not at all, she assured him. The girls went down to see Karina's grandmother, and I'm just cooking some dinner. How is Renata doing? Justin inquired. Oh, you know Renata. As indefatigable as ever. I think she'll outlive us all, and be working on twelve different community projects as she does it. She's a rock, Justin agreed, Karina's lucky to have her. True. All of Hope Falls is lucky to have her, when you think about it. So, what were you up to today? Oh, just cleaning out the bunkhouse and getting it habitable. It brought back a lot of memories of living there. I bet. Amanda said, and sitting between them, making the air electric, was the unspoken memory of the last time they had been in the bunkhouse together. The last time they had seen each other at all. She quickly turned back to the stove and focused her attention on the chicken sizzling in the pan. Justin moved behind Amanda, close. So close that she could feel his ragged breath on her neck and in her hair. The nearness of him paralyzed her. Her vision swam and her body felt on fire, and he wasn't even touching her. Amanda... he said, his voice husky with emotion, with regret. With desire? Was that just wishful thinking on her part? Amanda... he started again, and then trailed off again.

Slowly, so slowly that she almost couldn't tell if she was really doing it or if it were only her imagination, she turned her face up to his. She could barely breathe. Their mouths were less than an inch apart, and their eyes were locked on each other. She felt as if she would melt on the spot, or possibly explode. Yes? she whispered. With the one small scrap of awareness of her surroundings that she had left, she realized that her breathing had grown ragged as well, as if in answer to Justin's. I... he started, then took a deep breathe and tried to begin again, I just... And then, displaying a sense of timing so horrendous that it belied the flawless sense of rhythm she possessed which was one of the factors which made her a brilliant musician, Karina called from the front door, Yoo hoo! We're home Amanda drew in her breath sharply as Justin retreated across the kitchen, but couldn't manage to access her vocal chords to summon a response. She heard Karina's voice calling as she came down the hall, Did you hear me? Lucy, I'm home! she hollered in her best Desi Arnaz impersonation. Amanda looked up as Karina entered the kitchen and shook her head to clear it, but realized that the truth of what had just happened must have been written all over her face when she saw a sly smile spread across Karina's face. Lucy, you've got some 'splaining to do, she grinned, drawing out the impression. What? Amanda asked, doing her best to maintain an innocent expression as Lauren and Samantha entered the kitchen behind Karina. As soon as Lauren laid eyes on Amanda's face, she rushed over and took the wooden spoon out of her hand, taking over the job of t sauting the chicken and veggies. Oh my goodness, Amanda! I knew we shouldn't have left you to cook dinner for all of us right now. Seriously, go grab a water, sit down and relax. Your entire face is flushed, you're getting overheated. Karina continued to grin her evil little grin, and added an eyebrow waggle for emphasis. Oh, yes, it is quite hot in here, isn't it? Very, very hot. On a completely unrelated note, by the way, how are you today, Justin? Lauren looked up and followed Karina's gaze to the opposite end of the kitchen, where Justin was leaning against the counter. Oh, hello, she intoned flatly, I didn't see you there, and turned back to moving the food around the pan, but with an added degree of aggression that was clearly visible. OK! said Samantha cheerfully, taking the spoon away from Lauren, Maybe I should be the one to do this. Although, I think it's done. She announced, cutting open one of the chicken pieces and examining the interior, And it smells delicious! Thanks, Amanda responded, There's actually three parts, and I didn't know what

everyone's dietary restrictions were vegetarian, low carb, etc so feel free to mix and match any or all. Whole wheat pasta in the pot, chicken and veggies in the skillet, and vodka sauce in the saucepan, she finished, pointing at each in turn. And vodka in the freezer! Karina added, pulling the bottle out with a flourish. Justin, are you joining us for dinner?Oh, yes, Sam put in, looking at Amanda, You really should! It will be fun, like old times! Karina and Samantha looked at Lauren until she finally shrugged and said, It's a free country. But Justin had eyes for only one person in the room, and no one else's invitation or approval meant anything to him. Amanda? he asked, Do you want me to stay? Now, Amanda felt a certainty and a clarity she hadn't been able to achieve while solitarily searching her soul. There was no confusion, no hesitation anywhere in her as she answered firmly in the affirmative.

Excerpt: Scandalous
RED HOT PRIVATE EYE SERIES Novella

Excerpt from Scandalous As Dominic and Cristal were escorted to their table by a bubbly blond waitress, Dominic tried desperately to get his body under control. Walking around with a hard on in a crowded restaurant was as uncomfortable as it was inappropriate. His valiant efforts paid off. He had just managed to lower the flagpole when they arrived at their designated table. Cristal slid into the booth, giving him an incredible view of her perfect heart-shaped rear. He closed his eyes, trying in vain to erase the image from his mind. No luck. Desire quickly returned, flooding through his system like lava in his veins. His fingers itched to touch her, and he tightened his hands into fists. All of his blood was racing to his groin. Good God, man, you're not some horny teenager, he chided himself. You're a professional. This behavior is ridiculous. Shaking his head, he took his place in the booth across from Cristal. This view of her was not any less appealing, he found. Her silky brown hair fell in a perfect wave, a soft curl across her milky smooth shoulder. Her full lips screamed for attention, and they were certainly getting it from him. He wanted to crush her against his chest and press his lips to her luscious, plump ones. He eyed her pouty lower lip and imagined tracing his tongue along it, and then lightly nipping it with his teeth.

Well, theyre not wasting any time, Cristal said, excitement lacing her voice. Her body tensed like that of a bird of prey who had a quarry in its sights. She pulled out her phone and began to nonchalantly pretend to text as she actually snapped photos and took video clips of the woman they had been hired to follow. You have a visual? Dominic asked, all business, and worked to keep his tone neutral. He didn't want it infused with the sexual charge he was currently battling. He didn't want her to realize the power she had over him. Affirmative, Cristal said triumphantly, and placed her phone flat on the table, sliding it over to him. Dominic glanced down and saw the photo. It showed their mark, seated in a secluded booth and engaged in a full lip lock with her co-worker. It still blows my mind that people who are messing around go to public places. Sure, it makes our job easier, but come on...The Cheesecake Factory? Why would you risk it? Cristal shook her head as she pulled her phone back, ready to record any further transgressions for posterity. I think sometimes the danger of being caught adds to the heat, the drama. It's usually not about anything more than excitement, Dominic said. He shook his head. He had always thought that if you needed to go outside your relationship to get your kicks, it was time to find a new relationship. But if people did that...well, then half of his income would disappear, so que sera sera. The waitress came and took their orders. It was clear during the process that she only had eyes for Dominic quite literally. She looked at him even while Cristal gave her order, and directed questions about Cristal's salad to Dominic. Dominic, who was used to such attention just as he assumed Cristal must be used to it from members of the opposite sex, found the whole encounter amusing. He barely gave it a second thought. What did catch his attention, however, was the sudden stiffening of Cristal's posture. Something wrong? Did you lose visual? he asked crisply, immediately back in the game. Cristal looked at him coolly, I still have visual. They're probably playing footsies because the tonsil hockey has subsided. Then whats with the stiff back and shoulders? She raised her eyebrows, haughty, and spoke in an airy tone of voice, I dont know what youre talking about. Ooookay... Dominic said. He refocused his thinking. The amount of time that Cristal was being forced to spend with him because of their mutual assignment was limited, and he certainly did not want to spend it fighting. He thought it would be a good idea to change the subject. He thought could talk to her about Red retiring and the buyout offer, but that would most likely

lead to unpleasantry. After all, they both wanted the company, so they were in direct competition. He could try again to broach the subject of them getting to know each other better, but he knew that was a non-starter. She would shut it down with one dry sentence. He could hear her voice in his head already. Never gonna happen. Since it seemed he had exhausted all other topic choices available to him, he decided to go with the only thing he could think about rationally at this momentsex. I havent been that close to coming in my pants since middle school, he said bluntly. Cristal smiled, although Dominic could sense it was begrudgingly. She said, with the first hint in her voice that she might be enjoying the conversation, Perhaps your body is simply regressing until it matches your level of maturity. Dominic chuckled, That could very well be. Or maybe it's the fact that I havent been dry humped since seventh grade and my body is reacted accordingly, he gave her his 'devilish' smile and added, with a wink, Not that Im complaining. One corner of her mouth raised slightly in a naughty half-smile, Good, cause I dont seem to remember hearing a lot of complaining a few minutes ago, and I wouldn't be interested in listening to it now. Youre right, Dominic said, and then lowered his voice to an intimate level as he laid his hand lightly over hers on the table, I didnt make any complaints. Just promises. A flush rose up Cristals neck and she involuntarily snatched her hand back. He could see her almost instantly attempt to mask her reaction...and she almost succeeded. She didn't, though, not entirely. Dominic saw the light of passion that burned just beneath the surface calm in her eyes. He knew that she wanted him just as much as he wanted her. He smiled. This was going to be interesting.

Other titles by Melanie Shawn


THE HOPE FALLS CHRONICLES

Sweet Reunion (The Hope Falls Chronicles, #1)

Sweet Harmonies (The Hope Falls Chronicles, #2)

Sweet Victory (The Hope Falls Chronicles, #3)

Home Sweet Home (The Hope Falls Chronicle, #4) THE CROSSROADS SERIES

My First - Jason & Katie (The Crossroads Series, Book.1) RED HOT PRIVATE EYE

Scandalous (Novella, Vol. 1)

About the Author


Melanie Shawn is the writing team of sister duo Melanie and Shawna. Originally from Northern California, they both migrated south and now call So Cal their home. Growing up, Melanie constantly had her head in a book and was always working on short stories, manuscripts, plays and poetry. After graduating magna cum laude from Pepperdine University, she went on to teach grades 2nd through 8th for five years. She now spends her days writing and taking care of her furry baby, a Lhasa Apso named Hercules. In her free time, her favorite activity is to curl up on the couch with that stubborn, funny mutt and binge-watch cable TV shows on DVD (preferably of at least eight seasons in length - a girl's gotta have her standards!). Shawna always loved romance in any form - movie, song or literary. If it was a love story with a happy ending, Shawna was all about it! She proudly acknowledges that she is a romanceaholic. Her days are jam-packed with writing, being a wife, mom aka referee of two teens, and indulging in her second passion (dance!) as a Zumba instructor. In the little free time she has, she joins Melanie in marathon-watching DVDs of their favorite TV programs. They have joined forces to create a world where True Love and Happily Ever After always has a Sexy Twist! You can keep up with all the latest Melanie Shawn news, including new releases and contests, at: http://melanieshawn.com and http://facebook.com/melanieshawnbooks

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