Of course, the more she determined not to think of Nate, the more she did.
“Just perfect.” Kay Browning tipped her Dodgers cap low against the mid-morning glare and kicked into a hard backstroke through the cool water. Blue skies, hot July sun, intense desert landscape—another perfect day at Lake Mohave. Except for the futile if onlys snarled in her mind like fishing line.
Nate Quinn had come along with July and Mohave for the past six years. He’d sail in like a freshening wind, they’d share two weeks of fishing, playing, and loving, Kay’s careful schedule demolished to a pleasant shambles, and then he’d be off again on his adventures. Kay’s life would resume its organized pace, punctuated by glossy postcards, scattered bursts of e-mails, IMs and silly Tweets, the occasional twenty-plus-page letter, and the odd oblivious-to-time-zone phone call.
Kay liked how they kept the relationship simple. No demands on each other. No clinging, pining or carping. A happy, mutual understanding: she stayed and he went. But this summer, however much she hated admitting the feeling, Nate’s absence threw off her sense of balance.
No whining, no pining, remember?
She turned with a splash, adjusted her cap, and swam hard toward shore.
Life happens. Focus on what you can control.
At the moment, that was her painting.
She allowed herself one heavy sigh. Why every last one of her friends had inexplicably cancelled on the set-in-stone annual vacation—well, plans change. As for Nate…She hadn’t pined over anything since she was ten. This was simple, annoying regret.
She coasted into the shallows, rolled to her back and forced herself to relax and float. In her mind’s eye she drew Nate sitting there on the beach with the sun-drenched background of stark rocky land and softening tangles of willow, mesquite and tamarisk, and the mental exercise halfway worked in distracting the fidgets—as long as she kept her eyes closed. Fantasizing wasn’t pining. Quick pencil strokes to block him in. Slower, surer on the details. He liked his blond hair in a crew cut. His lean shoulders, strong, long hands… She trailed her fingertips over his favorite path from her waist over her ribs upward to—
Nope, no fantasizing that way. Back to drawing. Maybe she’d grab a sketchpad later and work out a few real drafts.
Lips set together, relaxed, with the faintest lift of a smile at the corners. The faint crook to his rugby-broken nose. His agile, comic eyebrows lay thick and straight over gray eyes. His ears stuck out a charming slightest bit. Beautiful cut abs and pecs proved his claims of laziness a lie. A perfect amount of body hair dusted silky crisp over chest, arms and legs. Men were such texture contrasts: the satin of skin and rasp of hair, jut of bone and arc of muscle, soft lips and calloused fingers. He wouldn’t have shaved yet today, and there would have been sandpapery-rough morning kisses. She almost heard him calling her, “Hey, Kay!” in the relaxed, husky way he—
With a splash, she erased the frustrating daydream. This wishful imagining fixed nothing. Her sheltered little camp would still be empty. Should she give in, pack up the camp, and hit the road north to Lake Mead instead? Just break her routine for once.
No, but it was definitely past time to get her tush out of the water and do something constructive. This lonely gnawing in her bones and brain was unacceptable. Kay pushed to her feet, facing out to the scenic lake created out of a stretch of the Colorado River and the rugged land beyond shimmering with heat.
Work, right, but it was too early in the day for the hard afternoon light she needed for the Coyote Point painting. She was too restless to read or fish and not in the mood to take the boat over to the marina, chat with George, and buy ice.
She rolled her shoulders and stretched, enjoying the hot air licking over her wet skin. As she wiggled her feet in the sand and gravel-bottomed shallows, a flurry of minnows darted past her ankles, and her silver toe ring glinted beneath the clear water. She paused, caught by the possibilities in the sparkling sun on water and the intricate, shifting reflections over gravel. Yes! Exactly the distracting challenge she needed. Shaking the water from her ears, she pivoted toward camp.
“Kay!” That male voice was not her imagination.
“Oh, shit!” She twisted and dropped into the water, sinking neck-deep. Mother always said, among other things, that a lady never goes skinny-dipping and must always wear a proper hat. Kay was only half skinny-dipping, but she fervently wished she’d worn something a bit more substantial than a baseball cap and the bottom half of the quintessential teeny-weenie yellow polka-dot bikini.
Shit, oh, shit, oh, shit. She so hated when Mother was right.
Okay, time to find out who’d just gotten an eyeful. The guy had called her name, so she should know him. Oh boy, if she’d flashed old George…
She wiped water from her face, sucked in a breath against her pounding heart, and peeked around.
She must be sun-dazed. Nate? With a beard? Hair curling over his ears? No way. Just because a familiar slouchy fishing hat topped those unruly, sun-bleached blond curls and just because this guy possessed the same deep-water tan and footloose taste in clothes as Nate with his electric blue Hawaiian shirt, bright orange swim trunks, and beat-up deck shoes didn’t mean—
“Hey, babe. Now that I’ve finally caught your attention, how about a hug from my girl?” He opened his arms. “Am I coming in after you or are you coming out?” Only Nate’s voice held that mellow timbre like chocolate for her ears.
“Nate! What…” Giddy delight flushed over Kay, clearing her shock. She dashed from the water and into strong arms, a wonderful hug, and a better kiss that launched her mind into a blissed-out whirl of oh, yes and why?
The oh, yes won out until the need to breathe forced them apart.
Nate gave her a long look, his usually easy gray eyes holding a new, simmering heat.
His slow hands followed the trail of his roving gaze: gentle tracing of cheek and lips, gliding across hips, waist and ribs, and grazing over her breasts to cup and caress. With his tender, simple touches, he stirred the warm desire of her daydream into full need. She shut her eyes, soaking in the unexpected pleasure. Oh, yes.
“Damn, I missed you.” He settled his mouth back on hers.
Kay laced her hands into his hair, but the soft, curling strands under her fingers and the brushing of his new beard and moustache against her face changed their kiss, as if she were kissing a stranger, the sensations sexy and disconcerting. Too much.
The sweet, sensual spell broke, leaving her strangely caught between aroused and unsettled. She shivered and eased free of his hands, immediately annoyed with herself. She’d missed him, and here he was. She wanted him here. She wanted his touch. She forced herself to relax against the solid, grounding warmth of his chest and was rewarded with another long, deep kiss—
Interrupted by his stomach’s loud growling.
They broke apart laughing.
“Yep, that’s me, Mr. Smooth.” A louder rumble of hunger and Nate chuckled, rolling his eyes. “Guess I should have grabbed something more than coffee at the marina.” His grin was happy, but his eyes were tired and shadowed.
Tenderness rose. Kay snagged her bikini top from the beach chair. “I’ll make us lunch.”
“No need to dress on my account.” He waggled his eyebrows in his best Groucho Marx imitation before retrieving her cap from the ground.
More laughter bubbled up. “You’ll never get lunch if I don’t. Can’t have you wasting away from hunger now.” She slipped on the top and tied the strings firmly. “How did you find me? I might have been at Crickets or Bent Willow Camp or anywhere.”
He settled her cap on her head and grinned. “You are a creature of habit, love. I knew I’d find you at Skunk Beach.”
“To be honest, I did check with George yesterday.”
Wait, how had he gotten here? She’d paid little attention to the boat traffic out on the lake today, but no way could she have missed his small sailboat, the Morning Whisper, sailing past. She glanced behind her. Nope, no boat. Her own boat rocked softly at its mooring. “Where’s the Whisper?”
“She’s moored over at Spider Camp.”
Why not here? But before she could voice her question, the warmth of his smile completely derailed her thoughts.
“How about I see if I can quick catch us a couple bluegill or crappie for our lunch?” With a wink, Nate slipped on his sunglasses and scooped up her fishing pole and tackle box.
Lunch, right, focus on lunch. Focus on normal.
Kay dragged her scattered attention onto lunch, cleared her equipment from the card table, set the places, and sorted out the salad ingredients from the cooler. He’d need more than salad and fish or sandwiches to fill him. The biscuits left over from breakfast would go nicely. The ice was getting low. She liked the heat, but with the weather these days, ice went fast. George had told her the other day the highs for the past week hadn’t been under a hundred and nine. She needed to work on the painting…and why on earth had he moored around the point?
She slammed the brakes on her spinning brain.
Oh, hush. Stop fretting and enjoy him. The painting’s not going anywhere.
Nate stood in the shallows, casting with her fishing pole, the lure and bright yellow and red bobber flying in a graceful, snapping arc to plink into the deeper water near the tangle of drowned willows.
The oddest wistful tug pulled in her, and she immediately smothered that unwelcome sensation, and the fretting. Nate was here. Now. Mindful of her earlier funk, she laughed. A wish had come true.
Better be careful what you wish for.
No. No negative thoughts today. She spread the white towel back over the cooler, straightened the corners, and soaked the heavy terrycloth down again.
The fish must have been as hungry as Nate, because in quick succession, he caught four nice keepers. He squatted at the water’s edge to clean the fish.
Kay started the Coleman stove and proceeded with the ritual of blowing sand from the fry pan and the dishes. Sand worked its way into everything no matter what.
Nate joined her and set the plate of cleaned fish beside the stove. “Pan ready?”
“Just about.” He tossed his hat over on the camp chair, folded his sunglasses and tucked them away into his shirt pocket.
Kay studied Nate’s unexpected facial hair. She had to admit the short, tidy circle beard suited his face. Her final vote on how she felt about the change was still out, but at least the beard didn’t hide his smile.
“What would you like to drink?” She pondered her ice chest’s limited selection. “Iced tea? Water? Beer?”
“Allow me, madam,” Nate intoned in a silly butler voice. He retrieved an insulated picnic bag from its shady hiding place in her tent and unzipped the lid with a flourish, revealing two cut crystal champagne flutes and the gold-foil topped green bottle nestled in crushed ice.
Delight ruffled through her. “Champagne. Oh, wonderful! What beautiful glasses. You’re crazy, you know. What are we celebrating?” Nate always came up with such sweet, fun surprises.
“July. Us.” He set the glasses on the table. Clinging crumbs of ice melted to beaded drips. After stripping the foil and wire cage, Nate cautiously eased the cork free in a fizzy pop. The bottle frothed over. “Oops.” Laughing, he filled the glasses quickly. His gray eyes sparkled and he handed her a glass. “A toast. Here’s to us and our future.” He touched his flute to hers, the small crystal ting singing between them.
“To us.” She sipped at her champagne, savoring the tart, sweet effervescence. Our future? What was that about? He still hadn’t explained his sudden change of plans.
Nate turned his attention to the stove, and a satisfying sizzle arose as he arranged the fillets to sauté simply in the olive oil with a dusting of salt and pepper. They both preferred to leave the mild flavor of the fish alone and avoid the usual breading or heavy seasoning.
She sighed. Nate. Give him his camera, pad and pen, and the clothes on his back, and off he flew, making his home wherever he threw his hat. If only she could pack her duffle bag, grab her paint kit and catch the next plane to somewhere exotic, maybe Bali or Greece, with Nate’s ease. Why not? She traveled with little more than that in her camper, so what was her problem?
Besides being a neurotic idiot? Does it matter? Stop stressing and wasting your time together. Enjoy him while you can.
Nate wrapped his arm around her waist, swaying them gently to the sweet melody he hummed. Ah, yes, “Come Monday.” After six summers with Nate, she knew almost all his favorite Jimmy Buffett tunes by heart.
“So tell me, why are you back so early? Aren’t you supposed to be heading to New Guinea?”
He neatly turned the filets. “Plans changed fast, and I wanted to see you.”
Happiness rushed through her at his simple statement. She waited for the rest of the story, but Nate simply nipped at her earlobe and scattered butterfly kisses along her nape and shoulder between sips of champagne. He knew her every ticklish, arousing place, and the touch of his clever hands and lips on her bare skin made focusing on conversation difficult.
“Hey, babe, got a question for you. I always meant to ask. Why do you do that wet towel over the ice chest thing?”
What? A sour clench of her stomach kicked her out of her bemused daze. Why? “That’s how Dad said it had to be done.”
Damn. Nate sighed. He’d tripped over another of her mysterious buttons. Even simple stuff was complicated with Kay. “Ah, okay.”
Kay glanced over her tense shoulder with defensive shadows in her blue eyes and her brows drawn into a pensive wrinkle. “We’ve always done it this way.”
“No biggie. I just was curious.” He kept his arm around her, stroking her belly, sneaking caresses up to her breasts. He wanted to kiss away that worried line. He needed to fix whatever put it there. “Damn, it’s great to be here with you, babe,” he murmured, nipping again at her ear and tasting kisses down the curve of her neck to her shoulder, pleased as she settled and softened under his touch. That’s better. No problems here. “You taste so good.”
Tasted good, felt better. Being with Kay knocked the exhaustion right out of him better than any pickme- up of caffeine. This had been the longest damn year away from her.
Her relaxed sigh broke into a laugh, and she set aside her champagne. “Hey, one of us better keep an eye on the fish or we’ll end up with cinders.”
Chuckling, he stole one more kiss before he released her. “Right. Fish. I’m on it. Have a seat and enjoy the champagne and I’ll get this fish served up.”
As he plated the filets, he savored the simple, perfect pleasure of watching Kay. Sunshine lit the gold and red flyaway wisps escaping her neatly braided light brown hair. He loved that yellow polkadot bikini on her. He’d nearly swallowed his tongue when she’d risen from the water topless, water dripping from her pale and lovely freckled skin, her breasts tight and tempting.
Kay’s blue eyes flicked up to him as she sipped her champagne. She licked a droplet from her lips with a quick pink touch of her tongue, followed by a thoughtful nibble at her lower lip.
Desire curled through his belly. Maybe he shouldn’t have let her pry loose to make lunch after that kiss.
Yeah, but his obnoxious grumbling stomach had kind of broken the moment, and Kay had needed to regroup after his unexpected arrival.
But was it his fault she camped in wilderness areas without cell service and hadn’t gotten the message from George?
“Here you go. One blue-plate bluegill special.” He set the blue-and-white Melamine plates on the table.
She’d likely be further upset with him for holding back the rest of his surprise—that the gang was over at Spider Camp—but yeah, he was being completely greedy and unwilling to share her attentions just yet.
Her smile reemerged. “Perfect.”
“Yeah, thanks to you. Caught them in time.” He took his seat and topped off her glass and his. The surprise of the champagne and the fancy crystal glasses had gone over well. Damn, but he loved making her smile.
“So, tell me everything.” She drizzled honey onto her biscuit. “Why’s the Whisper over at Spider Camp? Last I heard from you, you weren’t getting back to the States until October.”
“My less than shining effort at a surprise. It seemed brilliant at the time.” He winked. “Can I plead sleep deprivation as an excuse?”
Honestly? On mental autopilot, he’d anchored with the others, grabbed his picnic bag and backpack, and charged on over. Bringing the Whisper over to Kay’s camp would have been the sensible thing.
“Well…since you caught lunch.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Now tell me, what happened to the New Guinea trip? You were all excited about that project.”
“Schmidt cancelled at the last minute, but Cane still wanted Schmidt, so after much arguing, name-calling, snitting, and making up, they’re looking at next year now.” Instead of frustration at the whole debacle between his two prima-donna friends, he’d simply felt relief. Then, while he’d been cooling his heels in Auckland waiting on Cane’s final word on the trip, idly browsing the Web, playing what if and kicking himself over the wasted time, realization had struck. He’d been wasting time in more ways than one. Time to go home.
“Are you going to join them?”
He’d wished Cane aloha and good luck and started the crazed flurry of phone calls, e-mails, negotiations, plane flights, and caffeine-fueled driving that brought him where he needed to be: with Kay.
He smiled. Damn, he was pretty secure about most decisions in his life, but this next step was the big one. “No, I’ve got new plans.”
Hoping he wasn’t sounding like a complete idiot, he rambled on about the shoots in Australia and everything and anything light and easy he could scramble up to spill out over the meal, avoiding—uh, make that saving—the explanation of why he was here and what he had in mind until the right moment.
He was done with the endless traveling. He was more than done with holding back his heart. Kay had always been more than a summer fling, and this year he’d come to finally claim her—and her wary heart.
As for exactly how, well, he hadn’t settled on the answer beyond following his heart. That all depended on Kay and trusting his gut. He smiled at the quick neon image of Las Vegas and its games of chance—an easy ninety-minute drive north from the marina. He wasn’t a gambling man, but trusting his gut had never let him down before.
Whatever rubbish he’d been blurting out while they ate was working. She began sharing bits of her summer travels, sights she’d seen, and work she’d accomplished. Gradually, the sensual, happy warmth he longed to see edged the last anxious nerves from her blue eyes, and desire bloomed.
Everyone else might buy the artistic free-spirit act Kay carried off with aplomb, but at her core, his Kay was all plans, order, and routine. Heck, one glance at her tidy camp proved her organized mind in an instant.
His Kay. He took a long swallow of champagne. The clean, fresh taste of her fair, freckled skin, her generous mouth, her slim, strong body wet and cool against him flooded his mind. Be patient.
He watched her mouth close on a bite of fish, slide along the fork.
His hard-on ached and he shifted in the chair. Kay blushed, but mirth gleamed in her eyes as she sipped from her glass.
Don’t push. Or should he? Oh, hell. Patience was a lost cause. It had been a long, long year. He’d been half-hard since landing at LAX, and now with her here…
Be patient. Every reunion was this way, both of them wanting, desperate for each other when they got within reach, but Kay needing to close the space between them first. Yeah, Kay made him freaking nuts, but damn, she was worth the wait. When her reserve fell away, her blue eyes softened, and she made her move to him, she was every fantasy, every hope he’d ever had.
Kay set aside her knife and fork on her cleaned plate and stretched comfortably in her chair. “That was delicious. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” He leaned over, meaning to take a quick kiss, but slowed and strayed his lips over hers. “Want some dessert?” Or we could just kiss. Yeah, this was good.
“I have oatmeal raisin cookies. I could make coffee.”
“We’ve got something better. Hang on a moment.” He dug around in the picnic bag and retrieved the container buried in the ice. “For dessert…one well-traveled lemon meringue slice from Mira’s Diner.”
Kay’s delighted laugh was the best thanks. Oh, yeah, Kay with joy in her eyes was like sunrise, Easter, and Christmas all rolled together.
Scooping a forkful, he teased the serving a few inches from her mouth. “Indulge me and shut your eyes. This is an experience.”
Giggling softly, Kay obeyed.
Her lips parted and he slipped the portion of flaky pastry, creamy lemon custard, and sweet meringue into her mouth. She closed her lips over the fork, slowly drawing off the bite.
His body tightened, and he had no choice but to kiss those soft, pursed lips.
“Mmm.” Her eyes flew wide. “Oh, wow, that’s amazing. Best ever. From a diner?”
Most diner lemon pies he’d encountered were a mountain of rubbery meringue over gluey canned filling and bland crust. Not this one. “Don’t tell anyone, but I swear it’s better than my mom’s.”
He stole more kisses between shared bites of the sweet-tart dessert.
Pie and champagne finished, washing the dishes progressed to leisurely swimming in the refreshing lake water. Swimming led to lighthearted play and promising touches, a sensual game of tag and kiss, teasing quick and slower, sweeter kisses, and slick, cool embraces, all laced through with laughter.
Nate caught her one more time, scooping her up in his arms. Her laughter pealed.
This was exactly where he wanted to be. Kay was his, and he wasn’t letting her go again.
Now, God help him, he just needed to convince her of the same.
* * *
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