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How strange it was to see a man in her garage, but if any man had a right to be there, it was Bryan Aster.
"Are you sure, Lara?" he asked, with his head under the pickup's raised hood. "It's in great shape. And with that low mileage, you could get several thousand more than I can pay you."
"I don't need it, and Spence wanted you to have it."
Bryan's big, rough fingers continued to grip the top of the hood, but she doubted if he was still looking at the truck's inner workings. Being this close to her husband's best friend was disconcerting in ways she didn't want to hold up to the light. Part of her wanted him to leave, but she'd spent so much time alone since Spence's death and even before. It was time to rejoin the land of the living and who better with than a man she'd known at least ten years?
"So you're going to move, are you?" He slammed the hood, rattling her nerves even more than they already were.
"I have to. I didn't tell Spence this, but it's in foreclosure. With the medical bills and his not being able to work and my having to take so much time off What's that look about?"
Bryan shrugged, the gesture taking her back to when they'd all been in college and he had held down the catcher's position on the school's baseball team during that incredible year when the team had won the state championship. "I wish you'd told me."
"Why?" She tried a mischievous smile, something she hadn't felt like doing in too long. "You been robbing banks and are now giving away your ill-gotten gains? Even if you were rich, I wouldn't want anything. I don't want to live here anymore."
Lifted eyebrows served as Bryan's response. How healthy he looked, tanned with a full head of dark hair, the faintest shadow of lines around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. Funny, she'd never noticed that small dark mole on his right cheek, but maybe she'd never studied him like this before. Hadn't felt his energy before. "Do you think I should stay?" she asked.
"I want you to do what you want to, Lara. You're the only one who knows what's right."
Lara. Damn, why did the sound of her name coming from his lips make her nerves jump? "I'm still relearning what I want. Look, it's hot in here, and there's beer in the fridge."
"There is? I didn't think Spence was doing any drinking near the end."
"He wasn't. This is left over from one of the last times you came to see him. He asked me to pick up some."
Again, Bryan let silence do its work. He led the way back into the house, his movements as familiar as if he lived here. He didn't of course because he and Carol had a condo some two miles away, but he'd been here countless times and probably knew the place's creaks and groans as well as she did. Taking two beers out of the refrigerator, he popped the lid on one and handed it to her.
"I don't " she started, unable to take her eyes off his hand.
"Today you do. Come on, you always said you'd stoop to a beer if the day was hot enough. It's hot."
Yes, she acknowledged as they wandered into the air-conditioned living room and plunked themselves into adjacent recliners, summer had indeed arrived while she was too busy with the business of dying to pay attention. After briefly holding the can against her cheek, she took a sip. Wonderful!
His form filled the chair, shoulders scrunched a little to accommodate the inadequate space. Although he hadn't crouched behind home plate for years, he still carried himself as if he belonged there protecting his turf, battling for a win, daring a runner to knock him down.
"So," Bryan said, "do you know where you'll be moving to?"
"Not really. There's a fairly new apartment complex near work but after having my own house so much adjustment."
Once again Bryan didn't immediately respond. Had he always been like this around her, not quite comfortable? Or was she a painful reminder of the good friend he'd lost?
"You look tired," he said.
"Bryan, Bryan, don't you know men aren't supposed to say that to women? It's hardly a compliment. Besides, you're the one who looks tired."
"Hmm. You didn't get much sleep near the end, did you?"
"I'm making up for it now. In fact, I can't seem to get enough."
"Because you were neglecting yourself taking care of him."
"What choice did I have?" Shocked by her sharp tone, she leaned forward. When she took a breath, she caught a hint of male heat. "I'm sorry. I swore I wouldn't whine, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. When Spence decided to go off the chemo, I knew it wouldn't take long. Being there for him was something I had to do."
"You're an incredible woman."
No, she wasn't. What about the nights she'd spent beside Spence's bed wanting him to die so the inevitable would be over? What about the insane anger that swamped her every time she thought about the damn cigarettes that had started everything? Or thought about Spence's increasing dependence on her, his disinterest whenever she tried to tell him what was going on at work, or in the world, or with their finances?
"What?" Bryan asked.
Blinking, she brought the room, or more specifically him, back into focus. Lordy, but that T-shirt was tight! And the shadow of a beard over a strong male bone structure only added to her agitation. "Nothing. Just a moment of that self-pity I'm trying to outrun. It isn't getting me anywhere. So, how are things going for you and Carol? I don't remember seeing her at the funeral, but then, that day was pretty much a blur for me."
"I'm sure it was. Look, about the mortgage here. Do they know what you've been through? Maybe they'll give you some more time to work things out."
"They know, and they've been patient, but this is honestly what I want. Ah, about the truck. Do you mind waiting to take it until after I've moved? It'll make hauling things easier."
He'd been studying the beer can as if it was the most interesting thing in the room, but now he met her gaze with his beautiful deep blue eyes. "You know the answer to that."
Yes, she did. Bryan had always struck her as a giving man. She'd never seen so much as a hint of selfishness in him. If anything, he went too far to put others before himself, particularly Carol, who was more than a little self-absorbed.
"Just say when," he continued, "and I'll round up some guys and we'll do the actual moving. As long as you keep the instructions simple, we shouldn't make too much of a mess."
"Thank you." Laughing at his lighthearted approach, she pointed at a box near the TV. "I've started packing up some of the small stuff. You tell me, what am I going to do with all those tapes now that everything is DVD?"
"Get rid of them, unless there's a sentimental attachment."
Sentimental was hardly the word she'd use. She shouldn't have drawn his attention to that particular box. Good grief, what would he think if he read the titles? Bringing the beer to her lips, she took another swallow. "You're right. This does taste good."
"Hopefully it'll help you relax."
She stuck out her legs, then frowned because she couldn't remember when she'd last shaved them. And thanks to the old shorts, she had to admit her thighs were downright scrawny. All these years of watching her weight and now she'd gone and lost who knew how many pounds without being aware of it. When she looked up again, Bryan was studying not just her bare legs but everything about her, it seemed. Something zinged in her, a hot, crawling sensation. "What?"
"Sorry. I just...do you feel all right?"
"This, you mean?" She flattened a hand over her scrawny thigh. "Give me a little time. I'm sure I'll fill out again. That's something I've never had a problem doing."
"Starting tonight. I'm taking you out for dinner."
"You don't have "
"Not have to, want to."
The heat she didn't know what to do about became more intense, and although it might be less of a kick in the belly if she wasn't looking at him, she didn't drop her gaze. Reality 101 Bryan was turning her on.
Are you surprised? When's the last time you had sex?
Months, maybe a year. It wasn't that she hadn't thought about sex, far from it, but wanting and being able hadn't lived on the same planet.
"I, ah, thank you. What about the Roadhouse? The four of us used to love going there. Do you want to call Carol and "
"She won't be joining us."
At his tone, awareness of Bryan as a man tamped down a little. This wasn't about Carol working late or having another obligation. He was trying to tell her something important but didn't know how to do it. "Why not?"
Bryan rolled his can between his palms. Like her, he was leaning forward, the lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth more prominent than they'd been a few minutes before. "We've separated."
Although she'd suspected them, the simple words rendered her mute. She ached to walk over to him and hug him but didn't dare. And that ill-defined heat was returning, distracting her. "I'm sorry, so sorry."
"So am I. I didn't want to dump this on you. You have enough "
"You're my friend. I'm sorry I didn't know about this before."
He took another drink, then went back to rolling the can. "You couldn't have done anything about it, just as I couldn't make Spence well."
His truth hung between them. Had they once been fresh out of their teens with youth's optimism and ignorance and nothing to worry about except college grades and finances? Back then, those two realities had seemed pretty heavy, but in retrospect it had been nothing. "You're right. Do you want to talk about it?"
She'd expected that. After all, she and Bryan hadn't had one of those bare-your-soul conversations. Funny, she'd never thought about that before, but then she'd never been more aware of him than she was at this moment. "Something you said Carol didn't come to the funeral, did she?"
"No. Not because she didn't care, but she knew I'd be there."
"How complicated things become. Are you all right?"
He'd gone back to staring at her in that way that made her feel alive. The reclusive creature she'd turned into wanted to jump, to run out of the room and head for safety, whatever that was, but the man-woman energy she was experiencing had to be dealt with, either by relegating it to the are you insane file or or what?
"Yeah," he said. "I am all right. There've been problems between us for quite a while. The point came when neither of us could ignore them anymore."
"She's ambitious." Was that better than saying selfish?
"So am I, but I don't understand why her career has to come before and instead of children."
Something new lived in Bryan's eyes, a vulnerability she'd never seen. He was no longer the jock who lived and breathed his sport and thought success rode on his batting average. Now, like her, he lived in the real world. Studying him, she mentally placed a baby in those big hands. Instead of looking awkward and uncomfortable, his hands knew how to cradle and comfort. "I know you want children."
"I have for years. I want to coach my son or daughter's team no matter what sports they play, among a million other things."
"Ah, Bryan, I don't know what to say."
"Neither do I." Putting down the beer, he stood. "I wanted you to know about Carol and me, but where do we go from here?"
We? "If you think it would help to talk about it, I'm a pretty good listener. At least I'd like to think I am."
"I'm not interested in talking about Carol today."
Then what? Instead of asking, she watched as he paced to the window and then over to the bookshelf. She'd forgotten how easy walking was for a healthy man, that it was possible to just sit back and let a man do his thing instead of rushing to his side so he could lean against her. Bryan didn't need her, did he? No one did.
Much of the college jock remained in that physically fit six-foot-plus frame, but his worth no longer revolved around his mitt and batting average. He'd taken on a man's responsibilities, and his body had kept pace, becoming even more solid and set than it had been in its youth, competent.
Not just competent. He represents everything you lost and some things you never had.
He'd crouched and was looking into her box of tapes before what he was doing registered. Heat rose from her chest to her neck and from there to her cheeks. Too late.
Holding up a couple of tapes, he settled onto his knees and faced her. "Yours or Spence's?"
"Mine." She couldn't manage more than a whisper.
"Hmm. I didn't think they were Spence's. Even when we were young bucks going to strip joints and watching porn movies, I knew he wasn't comfortable with that scene."
The heat she couldn't do anything about had spread everywhere. Even her fingers and toes felt hot, and yet she was glad Bryan had found her collection of sex films and was willing to talk about them. Now if only she could muster the same courage. "He was pretty conservative. Maybe maybe that's what attracted us to each other. We were both old school, not particularly liberated."
Bryan nodded. Then he put down the two tapes and went back to sorting. She had every right to the stack. Her parents and other relatives were no longer looking over her shoulder and telling her what was and wasn't acceptable behavior for a respectable girl. Just the same, their lessons and lectures remained, fighting with her body's primitive needs.
He held up one. "Ripe and Raw," he read. "I've seen that one."
"You you have?"
"Yes." He rocked back on his heels. "Does that surprise you? Lara, when things go bad in a marriage, sex is often one of the casualties. At least it was for me."
"Me too," she blurted. "I mean oh, you know how sick Spence was. Our our sex life wasn't very important."
"The title Ripe and Raw didn't work for me," he said. "With the vampire element, I would have chosen a title that reflected that."
Warning herself not to wimp out, she took a deep breath. It was time to let the deeply buried Lara into the sunlight. "But it was more than vampires. It was also about a woman learning to embrace her sexuality." Which is what makes it one of my favorites. My fantasy.
Dropping the tapes, he stood and walked over to where she was sitting. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been this close to him or any man other than her husband. Nerves jumping, she ordered herself to stay put. But damn it, how many times had she dreamed about her skin touching a man's? Breathing in his scent? Feeling his touch? And Bryan wasn't just any male body, he was her friend. Separated. On the way to being like her, single.
"What?" she asked, unnerved by his heat sliding over her.
"You're a beautiful woman, Lara. We dated a few times before you and Spence became serious and Carol and I Why didn't you and I connect?"
Because you scared me. Every time I looked at you, I saw male animal, primitive, sexy. "Who knows?" Stop being such a coward! "Maybe because you stuck me with the dinner tab that time."
"Ouch. I'd forgotten that. Wait, you'd offered."
"Only because you were about to lose your mind waiting for your scholarship to come through."
"So you took pity on me?"
Never. "There were some good times back then, weren't there? All of us ready to take on the world. Untested and stupid."
"Stupid? Wait a minute, I think I take exception to that. Do you ever want to go back to those days?" He sat on her chair arm, his elbow brushing her shoulder. Once again her nerves zinged.
"What? No, I have no interest in living life over again."
"You sound as if your life is behind you. It isn't."
How had he gotten so wise? She might have asked if she could have concentrated on anything except his body and the way hers was reacting to it. Two days after Spence's death, she and his sister, who'd been staying with her, had come home from making funeral arrangements. Janet had poured herself a glass of wine and gone outside to read the paper and watch the sunset. On the brink of joining Janet, she'd taken her wine into the bedroom and closed the door. Then, not once questioning what she was doing, she'd stripped off her clothes, taken her vibrator out of the nightstand drawer, lain down on the just-changed sheets and touched the vibrator to her clit.
The moment the toy's energy hit her, she'd arched and clamped her teeth to keep from crying out. She'd never climaxed so fast or felt so out of control. And when she could think again, she'd curled onto her side with her hands between her legs and cried because she'd been so damn needy.
Would she rocket off into another climax if Bryan touched her the way she had? Beyond caution, she leaned against him and drank of his strong heat. "I'm not saying the good years are behind me. In fact, I'm thinking about going back to school."
Was his breathing deeper and more rapid than it had been before she pressed her arm against his? "You are? You already have a degree."
"In business administration. I hate business administration."
His rolling laugh made her smile. She might have concentrated on it more if her awareness of him wasn't so high. "I always wondered about your choice."
"Yeah." Taking her shoulders in his competent hands, he positioned her so she could look up at him without having to turn her head. "You got such a kick out of life, things like those marathon bike rides and cross-country skiing we nearly killed ourselves doing. I just couldn't see you stuck behind a desk."
Bryan worked for the telephone company. She wasn't sure what he did, some kind of engineering, but he was outside more than indoors as evidenced by his wind- and sun-hardened skin. "I wish you'd told me that back then. That way I wouldn't have screwed up my career choice. Thanks a lot, buddy."
"Why did you take the route you did?"
"You would ask that. I wanted job security. Growing up with a father who changed jobs the way a lot of men change their clothes, having an in-demand career within what I perceived as a stable industry was important to me."
"It isn't anymore?"
"No. Life's so short. If I don't grab it now, when will I?"
About to ask him to explain further, she stopped and simply looked at this man who'd been part of her world for many years. No matter how many things they'd done together, how many shared experiences, she'd always kept a certain distance between them and now suspected he'd done the same thing. They were friends, spouses of other people, not intimate.
Today she needed intimate. Needed sex.
Feeling braver and more reckless than maybe she had in her entire life, she reached up and stroked his chin. Stubble burned her fingertips, the sensation seeming to spread throughout her. Startled, she dropped her hand.
"I want to be a teacher. To be surrounded by children, to go crazy from the noise and energy, to feed off that energy and enthusiasm for knowledge."
"To feel alive again." He covered her hand with his and brought it back up, resting it against his cheek. The contrast between his hard jawbone and warm flesh was almost more than she could handle.
"Yes. I want to feel alive again."
Copyright © 2008 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.
Virgin Afternoon copyright © 2006 by Vonna Harper