Burn for Me
By Shiloh Walker
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Shiloh Walker
All rights reserved.
Blackness wrapped around them, a sheltering embrace as his body moved over hers.
His hunger had an edge tonight.
He'd come to her late, appearing in the darkened doorway of her room and she'd barely had a chance to catch her breath before he was there, strong hands slowly pulling away the covers and then the mattress gave way under his weight.
Now, as his cock swelled inside her, as one palm cupped her hip and angled her up to meet each driving thrust, he buried his face against her neck as he muttered her name.
She gasped out his and had to bite back the words she knew he wouldn't want to hear.
Tangling her hands in his hair, she arched and whimpered as he shifted his angle, moving so that the head of his cock stroked the bundled bed of nerves buried deep inside her and that small adjustment had her panting. Heat blistered her and pleasure consumed her.
He surged against her, harder. Faster.
She climaxed around him, muffling her sob against his shoulder.
His mouth covered hers, swallowing down that ragged, breathless sound.
Then he stiffened, coming inside her.
* * *
She wanted that purse.
Ali Holmes didn't covet a lot of things, but as she stood behind the counter of the Madison Pizza Company, she decided she was going to let herself covet that purse.
It was a safe obsession. Vivid, murder-red, butter-soft leather. It cost almost as much as she made in a week — it would have to. It was a Coach purse. She had an eye for those things, mostly because she obsessed over them. Drooled. Coveted.
Sometimes when she went shopping in Louisville or Lexington, she'd even let herself pet them.
But she wouldn't ever buy one. How in the hell could she buy a purse like that when she could barely afford to put food on the table?
It was a safe enough obsession, because she knew she wouldn't ever go and spend money she couldn't afford to waste on something like a purse, not when her two boys needed shoes, not when she needed to figure out how to fix the roof, and not when she was still scrambling to pay the bills for the appendectomy she'd had to have last winter.
The owner of that gorgeous red purse stood in the doorway, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim light after being out in the bright sunny afternoon.
Ali gave herself another second to lust as she gathered up a couple of menus and tried not to notice the way somebody was grinning at her.
"If you keep staring at the purse, she's going to think you plan on mugging her."
Just the sound of that voice was enough to make her heart skip, and maybe it made her knees a little weak, although she managed not to let it show as she turned her head and looked into the dark brown eyes of one Tate Bell, her other obsession.
He wasn't so safe.
Lately, she was starting to think she might have to give him up.
He was like too much chocolate, too much wine. She wanted to gorge on him, but he was oh, so very bad for her. If she could keep herself to just lusting after him, it wouldn't be an issue. Lust was nice. Lust was healthy. But she'd let herself get lost in him. Lost herself to him.
Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, if he could do the same.
Tate had ... commitment issues.
Hell, screw that. Tate had emotional issues.
With a lazy shrug, she said, "Nothing wrong with looking, sugar, right?"
A smile curved his lips.
That smile ... damn it, that smile was what started it. That was why she'd given into him in the first place, and all he had to do was flash her that smile at any given time and it made her want to forget herself all over again.
Forget the promises she'd made herself late last night, as she lay in her bed, with the scent of him still on her skin, while her heart split just a little more.
He might share her bed, but he wanted no part of her heart and she knew that.
She knew she needed to pull away from him.
What she didn't know was if she could.
"You're doing a lot more than looking at that purse, Ali-girl," he drawled, lifting his sweet tea to his mouth and drinking. His throat worked and she had to look away before she started thinking about pressing her mouth to that strong, tanned line. Before she started thinking about how they'd ended up in the shower last night — he'd been all hot and sweaty from hours spent in his studio and she'd been the same from hours spent hustling pizzas back and forth here at the restaurant.
"Oh?" She cocked a brow. "Just what am I doing?"
"You're practically drooling." He dropped his gaze to her mouth.
Out of reflex, she swiped the back of her hand over her mouth. "I am ..." Then she rolled her eyes. "You need to finish your lunch and get out of my place, Tate. I've got work to do."
"That was a subtle change of subject. Go on, go back to lusting over pretty purses. I'll pretend not to notice." He winked at her and lifted a slice of pizza to his mouth.
She sighed and turned away.
That was the damn problem. He did notice things. He noticed her lusting for purses, he noticed when she was tired at the end of the day, he noticed when something amused her or annoyed her.
If only he never noticed things, if only he wasn't so amazing with her kids.
There were a thousand if onlys that had led to her current mess. She might not be in the shape she was in, if only he was just interested in sex; if he would just roll in her bed for a quickie, then back out, maybe life would be easier.
But he cared. He knew her. He saw when she was sad, knew when she was mad.
He saw that she was obsessed with pretty things like Coach purses that she could never afford.
It was that very kind of thing that made it hurt more when he pulled back like he did.
Pushing it out of her head, she moved away from the counter, menus in hand as she flashed a smile at the pretty blonde. "Two?"
"No." The boy at the woman's side gave her a very insulted look. "I'm four."
Ali bit the inside of her lip to keep from grinning. Solemnly, she met his gaze. "Only four? I thought you had to be six, already." He looked only slightly mollified. "I meant are there just two of you eating today?"
Then she shifted her gaze to the woman.
"Yes." The woman grinned back. "Sorry. He's very proud of the big four."
"Can't blame him." Ali winked and led them to a table. "You all in town visiting?"
The lady shot her a glance as she slid into the booth and settled her son. "No. We just moved to town."
"Oh?" The dots connected. Madison was a small town. The small-town grapevine was pretty efficient, probably even more efficient at getting the word around than any other means known to man. Pretty lady, looked like money. Young son. Just moved to town. She cocked a brow. "You bought the old Frampton place."
The woman blinked, confusion in her eyes.
"Big old place, looks out over the river. Surrounded by an old stone wall."
"Ahh." She smiled and curled an arm around her boy's shoulders. "Yes. That's our place."
I wouldn't buy that hellhole if you gave me all the Coach purses in New York City.
Ali kept the words behind her teeth and smiled. "Welcome to Madison. I'm Ali."
* * *
Tate tried to pretend he wasn't bothered as she turned away without so much as touching him. But it bothered him. A lot. She treated him like ...
Fuck. She treated him like he was any other dumbass who came in here just to flirt with her. She gave friendly service with a friendly smile and took his order. That was it.
Okay, maybe they chatted a bit, but they were friends. They'd always chatted a bit.
Nothing had changed.
Wasn't that how he had wanted it? Of course it was. He'd helped set up those rules.
Friends, Ali. Just friends. Except when we want more.
But he didn't flirt with his friends when he saw them eyeing a pretty red purse. Shit, other than Ali, he didn't think he'd ever noticed what any of his friends were all that interested in, unless they shared the same interests as him. Although he'd be pretty damn amused if somebody like Guy or Adam showed any sort of interest in something like a Coach purse.
At least he thought it was a Coach purse. He'd spent enough time with her to see her curled up over her computer, eyeing them with something akin to longing.
Maybe he should ...
Stop. That's a little more than friendship.
He couldn't stop eyeing the purse in the mirror attached to the wall behind the bar top. Those things were expensive. Not that he'd paid a lot of attention. He'd just happened to notice. That was all. He wasn't going to hurt over a few hundred dollars, but for Ali, a few hundred dollars meant the kids' school supplies, their shoes, maybe even some groceries.
Scowling, he made himself look away from the purse, focusing on the hunk of pizza he no longer wanted.
Behind him, he could hear Ali's voice, warm and friendly. She didn't just make small talk. That was one of the reasons people who came here liked her. She actually liked talking to the customers, made them feel welcome.
Of course, quite a few of the guys came in here to stare at her ass.
It was one of the reasons he liked coming here. One of the reasons he'd started coming here to begin with, but then, he realized he missed her when she wasn't here. Without even being aware of it, he'd started coming in here on the days she worked, just so he could see her. That slow, subtle flirtation led to something more, although he'd put down the rules, because ... well. There was only so much he had to give.
Maybe at some point it had started to bug him when he noticed other guys in there were doing the same thing he'd started doing, a few years ago. Ogling just how well her ass filled out those jeans.
They'd always done it. Anymore, it pissed him off.
Pretty Ali Holmes ... his friend. Pretty Ali Holmes, mom of two, part-owner of a small, busy pizza place in small-town America. Ali Holmes, a cute brunette with silken skin and wide, green eyes and the sexiest fucking mouth. Ali Holmes ... the girl he'd had tucked under his body last night. A little over twelve hours ago, she'd been clutching at his shoulders and gasping for air.
Now she looked at him and talked to him like ...
He suppressed a groan as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. She treated him the same fucking way she treated everybody else here. Exactly the way he'd said he wanted things to be.
She'd been doing that all along, so why was it bothering him more and more?
Why did he get irritated when she eased back if he reached out to touch her hand when she brought him his food?
Why did he get pissed off if she wouldn't lean over the counter to let him kiss her? If she pulled back when he tried to lean over and do it anyway?
Why was he still feeling empty after he'd left her bed last night? It was getting harder and harder to pull away from her, but last night, it had been almost impossible. As he lay there, his face pressed to her hair, their hearts slamming together in unison, he'd thought maybe, just maybe, if he stayed there, right there, the nightmares wouldn't be so bad.
Maybe he could sleep, and not dream.
Maybe he wouldn't wake up with a scream half-choking him.
He knew better. So he'd pulled away, kissed her cheek, and without saying anything, he'd dressed, then left.
Every step of the way, he'd wanted to go back.
He wouldn't risk it, though. Wouldn't risk waking up in her bed, wide-eyed and terrified, while screams rose in his chest.
He wasn't fit company for man or beast this time of year, much less the woman he —
He couldn't go down that road, because it was too dangerous. Those were thoughts he didn't allow himself.
Yet somehow, he realized he'd hurt her. The thought of it left him feeling empty inside and he tried to brush it off, but it wasn't as easy as he'd like it to be. Of course, nothing with her was as easy as he'd like it to be.
Hell, it wasn't like he hadn't left in the middle of the night. He never stayed.
But last night ...
He closed his eyes, a fisted hand pressed to his brow as it played through his mind.
He hadn't said a word.
His heart had still been racing when he pulled out of her.
You fucking asshole.
Guilt, raw and ugly, churned inside him.
Lifting his head, he stared into the mirror over the counter, his gaze seeking Ali out. She was taking care of the young family in the booth just behind him.
The woman was probably his age. She looked like money, while the boy at her side looked like mischief squared and he chattered with Ali like he'd known her most of his life. He shifted his gaze to the purse, the one that had made Ali sigh with longing.
Then, because part of him hoped she'd turn her head and look at him, he let his gaze shift back to Ali.
She didn't look at him and that hollow ache in his chest spread. If he was smart, he'd walk away.
He didn't have the strength yet.
Maybe in a few more months.
He'd said that a year ago.
* * *
She was acutely aware when he left.
The door shut behind him and she felt it echo inside.
She'd felt the weight of his stare drilling into her.
Part of her had hoped he'd come around, maybe come up to her and try to touch her. Even though she knew if he did, she'd just pull back. He wanted to be friends, right? She wasn't going to let him keep blurring that line when there was only so much he'd give her. When he'd pull back from her in the night when she needed him the most.
But he hadn't come to her. He'd just stared at her, long and lingering. She'd felt the weight of that gaze and it had left her skin prickling and her heart racing. Then everything inside her turned to ashes as he left, without saying a word.
Just like last night.
She understood why. Maybe he wouldn't talk about it, but she knew. After three years of being lovers, she understood him better than he realized. Even before they'd become intimate, they'd been friends and he was an idiot if he thought she didn't know what this time of year did to him.
It was hell on him and his sisters.
He thought he kept it hidden, but nothing could hide that kind of pain.
He spent hours at the cemetery, nights awake in his studio. There would be a lot of sleepless nights ahead for him, and then in six, maybe eight weeks, he'd start to shift back to his normal mode. The pain would ease back a bit, for a while. Come Christmas, it would rear its ugly head again, then he'd be himself again come the first week of January or so.
Until summer rolled around.
Then he'd be like this again. Sad, brooding.
Pacing the floor while he brooded and wondered. The few hours of sleep he did get would be haunted by nightmares.
Not that he'd ever told her about the nightmares.
Jensen had been the first one to let it slip about those, but once or twice, he'd started to drift off to sleep on the rare occasions they'd been together at his place. Although she hadn't mentioned it, she'd seen the evidence of the nightmares then.
They chased him, haunted him.
A hollow ache settled in her heart, but instead of letting herself dwell on it, she kept her mind focused on work. Noah Benningfield had just settled in at his normal spot in the back and she grabbed a Diet Coke for him.
Forcing a cheerfulness she didn't feel, she dropped into the seat across from him.
He slid her an amused glance and then bent back over the plans spread out in front of him. "Hey, Ali." His golden-brown hair glinted under the lights and his hands, big and strong, held the pages down as he studied ... whatever it was. It looked like a house plan. Sort of. With little pictures on the side.
He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Louisa over at the coffee shop wants to make some changes on the work I'm doing over there." Although his face was solemn, his blue eyes laughed at her as he glanced up. "We've only finalized the project three times now."
"Wow. Three? That's pretty decisive ... for Louisa."
Noah winked at her.
"She asked you if you were going to give her a discount, seeing as how you're a preacher and you're not supposed to profit from worldly things?"
Noah blinked. Then he put down the pen he was holding and leaned back in the chair. "Excuse me?"
She grinned at him. "She was in here with her book group and was telling all of them how she thought it was just insane that a preacher would charge so much to renovate the coffee shop. You're a preacher. You committed yourself to being poor and meek and mild and here you are, robbing people who only want to make an honest living."
"Robbing people. Yeah, I look like I live in the lap of luxury." He lifted a brow. "I wonder what she'd think if she saw just how much it's going to cost, material-wise, to do the work."
"I imagine she thinks you're going to spread out your hands and turn the bread into boards, Preach."
He rolled his eyes. "I stopped preaching years ago. Even when I was preaching, I don't recall ever having that divine power. I was just a youth minister, remember ... maybe I got left out because of that."
"I remember." She stood up, flicking her finger on the corner of the piece of paper. "You were my youth minister ... Preach. So. You want your normal or are you going to live a little?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Burn for Me by Shiloh Walker. Copyright © 2014 Shiloh Walker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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