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"IS he coming?"
"Is who coming?"
Shay set down the knife that she was using to touch up the icing on her parents' fortieth anniversary cake and glared at her older brother, Kent. "You know who."
"Caleb," he said, and reached for a strawberry from the bowl next to the cake.
Shay smacked his hand. "Don't eat the food before the guests arrive, and who else would I be talking about? Of courseCaleb." Just his name twisted her in knots.
"So is he?"
Kent snatched a strawberry and bit down. "Yes, he's going to be here. Why wouldn't he be? It's Mom and Dad's anniversary. They're his parents, too."
"He's been home for a few months," Shay said, "and I've yet to see him. That's why." And because she'd kissed him. Ten years ago, on her eighteenth birthday, and they'd hardly seen each other since. "He came home all of a handful of times in a decade."
Kent snorted. "What did you expect? He was in the Special Forces. Some elite unit that he can't even talk about. And you might not have seen him since he's been home, but I have."
"Because you went to that skydiving business of his and jumped out of a plane." A sales rep for a high-end sporting goods company, her brother didn't get his sun-kissed, athletic good looks by accident. He was all about sports, the more extreme, the better. "You went to him, Kent. He didn't come to you."
"He's trying to get his business rolling," he said. "Cut him some slack. There's nothing more to this. Don't read into it. Ever since you opened that fancy psychology practice of yours, you're always reading too much into things."
"I just don't want Mom and Dad to be disappointed," she said. "Today is special."
"He'll be here," her brother reassured her. The doorbell rang. "That must be the caterers." He glanced at his watch. "And not a minute too soon. We don't need thirty hungry people roaming around our backyard. It might get dangerous." He started to turn away and seemed to think twice. He leaned on the counter. "Stop fretting. He'll be here. And Mom and Dad will have a great day."
She forced an accepting nod she didn't feel. Kent continued to study her with a keen look until the doorbell rang again. Then, with a scrub of his jaw, he departed. She knew he could tell something more was going on with her than simple worry over her parents' partyshe'd seen it in his eyesand there would be questions later she didn't intend to answer.
Shay shoved her long blond hair behind her ears and crossed her arms in front of the modest swimsuit cover-up. Her mother had volunteered her to put her college lifeguard skills to work today with the many kids attending the party. Caleb had been a lifeguard, too, she thought, unable to escape memories of his role in her past. She squeezed her eyes shut at the vivid image of him in red lifeguard trunks, bare-chested, with a sprinkling of hair over perfectly defined pecs. His light brown hair streaked with blond from the sun. Green eyes glistening with amber flecks. And the lifeguard whistle. The man made that whistle so darn sexy, as silly as it might seem. How many times had she silently vowed to one day blow that whistle?
She shook herself, appalled at how ridiculously capable of recalling his "whistle" she was, despite a full decade since he'd donned said red trunks. Or how easily she remembered the moment she'd pressed her lips to his, how firm and smooth and wonderful they'd been. And the way he'd let out a soft moan that had told her he'd hungered for the kiss as much as she had, even if he'd never have claimed it himself. It had been her turn to moan when his hand had slid to her back and molded her close.
And then, true to form, Kent had shown up. Caleb had bolted so fast you would have thought he'd been struck by lightning. He'd told her the kiss had been a mistake and left.
The next week, after an awkward family farewell, at least for the two of them, he'd been gone. The few times Caleb had made it home in those ten years, the tension between them, the attraction, had been uncomfortably evident. And now that he was home to stay, he was avoiding her. That meant avoiding her family, their family.
She straightened, realizing what she had to do. She couldn't let this continue. My God, she was a therapist. She helped people deal with the fastballs of life and reveled in being good at it. She had to deal with her own issues. She and Caleb had to talk, to get whatever was between them out in the open, instead of hiding from it. The damage was done.
She reached for the knife to finish the icing and then pressed her hands to her parents' green marble counter. Who was she kidding? Talking wasn't going to solve anything. Talking wasn't going to dissolve the combustible sexual tension between them. It seemed to Shay there was only one answer. Something drastic. Another kiss. Something she would never have considered if the circumstances hadn't become so strained. Okay, the fantasy about the red trunks helped. But they both needed to know once and for all what was between them. Her plan: she was going to kiss Caleb again, and it was quite possible she wouldn't even enjoy the kiss. Wouldn't that be a relief?
The hottest woman he'd ever seen in his life was poised on the diving board, in a red-and-white, polka-dot bikini. She was also his best friend's twenty-eight-year-old "baby" sister. And considering said best friend was standing next to him, Caleb Martin tried not to drool. It wasn't easy. Shay White had been winding him into a tight ball of lusty need for as long as he could remember.
In fact, if not for the way Shay had rattled his cage, and the secretalbeit ancienthistory the two of them shared, Caleb might not have followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Army. Shay had been the ink on the dotted line, the final nudge.
Caleb watched as she bounced on the board, as if intentionally drawing him under a spell where nothing else mattered. There was only the moment, and her on the diving board and in a bikini that, while certainly appropriate for her parents' backyard anniversary party, showed enough skin to entice his imagination to fill in the blanks.
Another graceful bounce and her long, lithe body curved into a delicate arch. Caleb's hungry eyes followed every last glimpse of skin, from fingertips to her shoulder-length blond hair, down to those gorgeous, fantasy-inspiring legs and all the way to her toes, as she slipped into the blue depths of her parents' pool. His heart thundered in his chest. Shay damn near made the water boil. She damn sure made his blood boil. The woman was hotter than the late-July, Austin, Texas, sun beaming through clusters of smoky clouds.
"Always liked to be the center of attention, didn't she?"
Caleb blinked, bringing Shay's brother, Kent, back into focus, along with the twenty-five or so guests mingling in various poolside areas.
"Yes," Caleb agreed, turning the iced bottle of beer cooling his hand to his lips and savoring the much-needed chill as liquid slid down his throat. "Shay was always the center of attention." And Kent had no idea how true that statement really was for him.
"Caleb!" The warm, friendly voice of Sharon White spun Caleb on his heels and into her hug.
"Happy anniversary, Sharon," he said. "Forty is something to be proud of."
"Thank you, son," she said, still hugging him, holding on to him, before leaning back to give him a thorough inspection. "And now that we've both retired from our teaching jobs, we plan to enjoy ourselves a bit."
"You deserve it," he said, thinking of how dedicated they both had been to their high school students. He'd been fifteen, Kent's best friend, and one of Sharon's students, when his motherwho'd been struggling to raise him alonehad died of a heart attack. Years before, Caleb's father had been lost in a military operation overseas.
A familiar scent brought back memories of those years, of when Sharon had become his second mom. "Do you smell like sugar cookies?" he asked. "Or am I having flashbacks of you baking on the weekends?"
"You were always begging me to bake sugar cookies," Sharon said, smiling. "Which is exactly why I baked a batch and hid them in the pantry for you. I have to do something to get you to come around to see me." She pursed her lips at him, her sleek silver hair coiled at her neck. "You've been out of the Army two full months, and I've seen you two times if you count today. Shame on you, Caleb Martin. That's once a month."
Caleb hung his head, shamed indeed. "I'm sorry," he said, regretting that his fear of running into Shay had made him avoid both Sharon and her husband, Bob. Sharon, in particular. The woman had been his rockseen him through some secret tears and a struggle for identity. He added, "You absolutely will see me more often."
The delicate lines around Sharon's too-keen light blue eyes crinkled in scrutiny. In a motherly gesture, she stretched her arm and touched his light brown hair, then his jaw, her brows dipping. "You look tired." She let out a breath, and concern kicked into a parental lecture. "You and those friends of yours are working too much. I know you want to get that skydiving business of yours off the ground, but you can't go jumping out of planes with no rest."
Caleb figured she didn't want to hear that as recently as two months earlier, sleep had been a luxury, and skydiving into the bowels of hell in some dangerous country was the norm. Instead he promised, "I'm careful. But I have to work hard and get the Hotzone making a profit if I plan to stay a civilian." And he did plan to stay a civilian, a vowsilent or nothe would never have thought possible a year before.
"Plan to stay a civilian," came a soft, silky voice from behind him.
"Well," she continued, "you haven't bothered to come see me since you got back into towntwo months ago."
Tension rippled through Caleb's body in tidal-wave proportions, pulling him under with such force he would have sworn he was drowning in those brief seconds before he turned.
Caleb brought her into focus. Shaygorgeous, petite, feisty little Shay, with one towel wrapped around her slender figure, tucked under her arms. With a smaller towel, she dried her light blond hair spun with the color of snow-streaked wheat that accented equally light blue eyes brimming with mischief and challenge.
"Now, Shay," Sharon scolded, "don't be giving Caleb a hard time." Sharon chuckled and elbowed Caleb. "Better yet. Please. Feel free. Does my heart good to see you three kids together, stirring up harmless trouble."
Kids? Kent and Caleb were thirty-one. Shay was a mere three years younger. Hardly kids. And any jest between Shay and him was hardly harmless.
"Both you women need to behave." The playful reprimand came compliments of Bob White as he joined them, proudly sporting khaki shorts and a T-shirt that read Forty is the New Thirty. With his blond hair now silvery gray, he remained tall and athletican older, wiser version of his son.
"Cut Caleb some slack," Bob ordered. "He's been getting a business started." He kissed Sharon's cheek and then raised a hand to Caleb. "Come 'ere, boy! Give the ol' man a hug."
Another bear hug ensuedin a manly kind of way, of coursebefore Shay asked, "Where's my hug?"
Caleb's gut clenched, thinking of how she felt in his arms as she had the night of her eighteenth birthday. The night everything had changed. The night he'd forgotten himself and kissed her. And if not for an interruption, he might have done a whole lot more. No. No "might." He would have. His attraction to Shay was that strong, an attraction that only seemed to age like fine wineget richer and more irresistible. It was a hard lesson he'd learned on the few visits home that he'd dared while enlisted.
She was in front of him now, driving him insane with her nearness. "Unless you're afraid I'll get you wet?" she taunted softly, her gaze sliding over his jeans and T-shirt, a contrast to everyone else's swim trunks, shorts and various summer attire. "You aren't exactly dressed for the pool." She leveled him with a stare. "You do know the meaning of pool party?"
He wanted nothing more than to dive into that pool with Shay, with nothing but swimsuits between them. Exactly why he'd dressed to avoid temptation.
Bracing himself for the impact, he decided to take charge of this unavoidable hug and then make a run for the other side of the pool. Caleb attempted a short, one-armed hug, his beer a great excuse to avoid anything more intimate. "How've you been, Shay?" he asked.
Instantly, her arms wrapped around his neck, preventing his escape. She clung to him, her soft, warm curves melting into hima friendly embrace to anyone watching, but they both knew it was more. And damn it, it wasn't enough. He'd longed to hold her again for so very long. He wanted to mold her closer, to inhale her, to absorb her.
Among all the women a decade of traveling the world delivered to a Special Ops soldier like himself, none of the fast exits had left him with regret. But leaving Shay had, and often he had wondered if she were the reason why no one else had mattered. Because there was no questionshe had long ago reached inside him and refused to let go.
"I missed you, Caleb," she said softly, near his ear.
I missed you, too, he thought, fearing the words would sound as those spoken by a man, not a brother.
And he was her brother. Brothers were forever. The minute they became more, they were like every other couplethey could crash and burn, lose what they had. And he'd lose more than her. He'd lose the only family he'd known for the past fifteen years.
He snatched the wet towel she'd draped over his shoulder and tugged it out of her grip, stepped backward and handed it to her. "Thanks for the soggy shoulder, Shay-Shay," he teased, reminding her of their youthful play and putting their relationship where it was meant to beladen with sibling jest.
"Oh, God," she said, rolling her eyes and wringing the towel in her hands. "Don't call me that. You know I hate it."
Kent chuckled. "You loved it when you were thirteen."
"Thirteen," she repeated, grinding the age through her teeth. "When I played dress-up in Mom's work clothes."
"And transformed yourself into 'Shay-Shay Va-voom,'" Kent added, needling her.
"I hate you, Kent," she said, her teeth still clenched. "Really, really hate you."