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Major Finn O'Conner knew his last vacation before shipping off to the Middle East againthis would mark his third damned tourwas off to a terrible start when he felt something warm and wet cascading down his bare left calf to pool in his leather sandals.
Much to his horror, it was dog urine, being delivered quite unrepentantly by a massive English Bulldog with a mouth full of crooked teeth and a black, silver-studded leather collar.
"What the fu" he grunted, and jumped out of the way. He shook his leg, kicking off his sandal in the process, and looked around for the dog's owner. Why the hell wasn't this animal on a leash, he wondered, muttering under his breath about irresponsible pet owners. When the search proved futile, he tackled the next order of business, which was cleaning the piss off his leg.
Though he'd crawled through worse and witnessed firsthand the ravages of war, he nonetheless found this revolting. He'd gone into the service by choice. The dog, damn its admittedly beautiful hide, hadn't given him one. Still cursing under his breath, he rummaged through the back of the SUVwhere he'd been in the process of unloading his suitcase when the dog had nailed himand grabbed the first thing he could find to wash his leg off with. A shame, he thought, grimacing as he unscrewed the bottle's lid and tilted the contents onto his leg.
"Interesting," an amused feminine voice announced, startling him. "I usually sip my JD, but to each his own I guess."
Finn looked up into a pair of familiar pale-green eyes and felt a smile inexplicably slide across his lips. Unexpected delight seasoned with a startling amount of lust wound its way though him, settling warmly around his heart and loins.
The heat in his loins he was accustomed to.
The feeling in his heart, however, was another matter altogether. He hadn't had that unsettling sensation since the last time he'd looked at her.
"Sunny," he said, surprised. He'd asked her parentsthe owners of the Sandpiper Innif she was still around when he'd booked his stay. Her father had told him that she'd moved to Savannah, some thirty minutes away. He'd been unreasonably disappointed over that news, he remembered now, and had secretly planned to see her again.
Like her parents, Sunny had been a constant at the Sandpiper here on Tybee Island, Georgia, just a short bridge and a stone's throw from Savannah. His family had started coming to the intimate motor inn when he was a toddler and they'd vacationed here for a week every summer until he'd turned eighteen. He loved the scent of the ocean, the crash of the waves, roasting hot dogs over a driftwood fire, badminton, volleyball and fishing. The whole environment here was laid-back and fun. A beachside Mayberry, complete with a no-gun sheriff (Sunny's father), Aunt Bea (her mother) and Barney Fyfe (Tug Timmons, their slightly accident-prone handyman with more enthusiasm than ability). Was Tug still around? he wondered and made a mental note to ask.
Built in the early fifties, this little motel was positioned on a prime, unspoiled stretch of beach and had stayed true to its family-friendly atmosphere. Audie and Janine Ledbetter had updated it over the yearsreplaced worn-out furniture and appliancesbut had resisted the temptation to level the structure and replace it with a row of trendy condominiums that would have undoubtedly earned them more money.
It was a shame to think that it might happen anyway, Finn thought, soaking up the familiar atmosphere. Seagulls squawked overhead and a salty breeze slid through his hair and into his lungs. Something loosened in his chest, expanded, making him feel lighter.
Thank God. He'd felt as though he had lead in his shoes for the past six months.
According to Audie, he and Janine were ready to get out of the hospitality business, only Sunny hadn't shown any interest in taking it on in their stead. He'd jokingly asked if Finn was interested, and though he'd initially refused, Finn had to admit that the more he'd thought about it, the less insane the idea seemed. He hadn't been able to get the possibility out of his head.
Nostalgia, he thought, batting the ridiculous notion away again. He was a soldier. He'd been through the ROTC program in collegethe University of Georgiaand had logged almost eight years in service to his country.
Duty, honor and courage, those were the traits that he admired, that he could be proud of. He'd always had a keen interest in American history and particularly admired the Founding Fathers. Were they perfect? No. They were human. But their dedication to the greater good, their sheer devotion to building a better country for their children, had left an impression on him that had shaped a career. A life. He was proud of his service and, though he would admit to some strange stirrings of discontent over the past few months, he'd never once regretted the path he'd chosen.
Or he hadn't, until his parents had suddenly died in a car accident last fall.
Finn swallowed as their dear faces suddenly surfaced in his mind, his mom's kind eyes, his father's crooked grin. It was funny the things one truly missed, he thought now. He missed the smell of his mother's perfumelight and floraland the way she used to sing tunelessly as she painted. He missed the sound of his father tinkering in the garage, the way he cocked his head when he was considering something, his laugh.
He regretted the time he'd missed with them and that regret seemed to intensify every day. The holidays and vacations he'd never managed to come home for. Their passing had put a big gaping hole in his life and had left him feeling alone and out of sorts. Uprooted. Though there were plenty of beachfront properties on Tybee Islandones that would have been more fortuitous for a single guy with a healthy libidoFinn had purposely chosen the Sandpiper with its individual cottages and retro charm. There were good memories here, he thought, and, irrationally, he knew he'd feel closer to his parents here. It was a tribute of sorts, one that he knew they would appreciate. His gaze slid to Sunny and he took a cautious breath.
Whether she appreciated him being here remained to be seen. The last time he'd seen Sunny had been the summer before he'd left for college.
And she'd been naked.
He'd been a typical horny eighteen-year-old with a certain amount of charm, a known quantity to her because he'd been visiting every summer, and, though it had taken the better part of the week, he'd finally succeeded in charming her yellow, polka-dotted bikini bottoms off.
He remembered soft skin, moonlight and tan lines, the sound of the surf hitting the beach, making promises he'd had good intentions of keeping. and the exact moment when he'd realized he was her first. He'd felt the strangest combination of masculine victory and shame. And, though he hadn't talked to her since that night, he'd never been with a woman when he hadn't thought about her. The combination of innocence and sensuality, the sleepy reverent way she'd looked at him when she'd welcomed him into her body. The slip of her fingers along his spine. It was all indelibly imprinted in his memory.
Other lovers had come and gonethey always went, at his prompting (he wasn't called the Teflon Don Juan for nothing)but none had ever quite touched him the way she had.
Quite honestly, she'd terrified him. He'd looked into those soft green eyes, felt his chest expand with an emotion so intense it couldn't possibly be named and, though his future had been painstakingly mapped out for years, in that moment he saw a completely different one unfurl in front of him.
One that had included her.
He'd bolted, determined to stick with his predetermined course. Though it had been extremely difficult, he'd cut off all contact, making a clean break.
Later, Finn had chalked his extraordinary feelings for her up to his idealistic teenage mentality; life then had been a lot less complicated and the world was his oyster. But looking at her now, feeling the instant stirring of desire in his loins, he wasn't quite so sure.
She was his same old Sunnyblond curls hanging to her shoulders, a golden tan, the same dimpled smile. But time had added a fullness to her figure that made her all the more attractive. She wore a lime-green T-shirt with the Sandpiper logo screen-printed over her left breast, white shorts which showcased a first-class set of legs and a pair of funky-looking flip-flops with little fuzzy balls, lots of ribbon and pink flamingoes. The shoes made him smile. Her breasts were ripe, her ass was lush and the waist between them was small enough to make her look like a pin-up girl.
The sensuality he remembered was there in spades, but the innocence was gone. Pity, that, he thought, and wondered how much of it he was to blame for. There was a tightness around her eyes, a harder edge to her smile. Less open and more guarded.
"I usually sip my Jack Daniel's, too," Finn finally managed to say, his lips twisted. "But I needed something to rinse the dog piss off my leg."
She snickered and mild sense of satisfaction clung briefly to her smile. Her amused gaze strayed to the animal still sitting at his feet. "You've met Atticus, have you?"
He grunted. Atticus. That's right, he remembered. She'd loved To Kill a Mockingbird "In a manner of speaking. Shouldn't you tell the owner to put him on a leash?"
"You just did."
His felt his eyes widen. "He's yours?" he asked incredulously. He would have pegged her as having one of those toy breeds that could be carried in a purse or under the crook of an arm, not this monstrous muscled lump of a dog.
Sunny nodded and patted her thigh. The dog gave him one last look, as though he were contemplating peeing on his other leg, then lumbered up and waddled over to her. "He usually doesn't go off the deck," she remarked. "The sand irritates his paws. He must have been very curious about you." She said it as though it were a compliment, as though he should be honored.
Finn smiled drolly and passed a hand over his face. "I'm having a hard time feeling flattered."
Atticus suddenly emitted a loud, rumbling stream of gas that would have done an elephant proud.
Startled, Finn frowned down at the dog and a grim note entered his voice. "Er if he's your Welcome Wagon, sunshine, then business must be pretty slow."
Sunny's lips twitched, then a soft chuckle slipped past her lips. "Come on," she said, jerking her head toward the office. "You're going to want to be upwind from that."
She couldn't have orchestrated a better passive-aggressive payback if she'd tried, Sunny Ledbetter thought with a small, satisfied smile as she led Finn O'Conner around to the so-shabby-it-was-considered-chic office to get him checked in. She made a mental note to reward Atticus with a special treat this evening. She'd fill his Kong with peanut butter and cheese, she decided, and give him one of her old shoes to rip apart.
In her opinion, her dog using Finn's leg as a fire hydrant and the loss of a little whiskey was a small price to pay for taking her virginity and breaking her fragile sixteen-year-old heart. It was water under the bridge nowit had been twelve years ago, after allbut the first couple of years after he'd left and hadn't come back had been pretty damned hard.