Excerpt: When We Kiss
Ribbon Ridge, Book 5
Aubrey Tallinger finished drying her hands and set the towel down. Lifting her head, she caught her reflection in the mirror. Her hazel eyes stared back at her and seemed to ask what she was doing dawdling in the bathroom when a perfectly lovely wedding reception was going on.
Isn’t it obvious? I’m avoiding Liam.
She was proud of herself tonight. She’d done a good job of ignoring the one person who always seemed to command her attention: Liam Archer. It helped to have a date along. A date she should get back to.
She took a deep breath and opened the door. Liam stood on the other side of the threshold.
He grabbed her hand and dragged her to the left through a doorway. He let go of her to close the door then stood in front of it, his blue-gray eyes narrowed. “Who’s the loser?”
Aubrey registered that they were in a sitting room attached to his parents’ bedroom. She wanted to turn and look at the sun setting over the garden through the back windows, but couldn’t tear her eyes from Liam. Dressed in a crisp black suit with a natty, striped tie, he was the sexiest best man she’d ever seen. His dark wavy hair was perfectly styled and, as usual, she had an almost irrepressible urge to mess it up.
She tensed as she forced herself to present a cool demeanor. “I introduced you to him at the church.”
“Yes, Stuart the Accountant. But why did you bring him in the first place?”
She cocked her head and gave him a sarcastic stare. “Was I supposed to wait for you to ask me? You don’t take me on dates, Liam. You never have.” The dinner he’d surprised her with at her house when he’d been home for the long Thanksgiving weekend didn’t count. Dates were public.
He frowned, and she was shocked when he didn’t fire a snappy comeback. “I might’ve, actually.”
Ha! She’d believe that when she saw it. “Too late. I told you at New Year’s that our little . . . thing was done.”
“It wasn’t a thing.”
“No, I think you’re right. It was a series of convenient hook-ups, and they are no longer convenient to me.”
She called them hook-ups, but they’d been more than that. Every time they were together, she’d felt as though they’d connected on some sort of intimate level that went beyond just sex. But that was stupid. While she’d come to know him at least a little bit, they hadn’t spent enough day-to-day time together to allow anything meaningful to spark. Except for Labor Day weekend. They’d spent the better part of four days in each other’s company, and it had been bliss. They’d laughed, they’d danced, they’d talked. And yes, they’d had a lot of sex. The physical aspect of their connection was so far the most powerful.
He prowled toward her, like a jungle cat on the hunt. She had no intention of being his prey. Nor did she want to run. She stiffened her spine and crossed her arms over her chest. Meager protection when she knew just how dangerous his weapons of mass seduction could be.
“Come on, they were a little more than hook-ups. We planned to hang out over Labor Day.”
That was true, but they’d both been going to the Dave Matthews Band concerts up in central Washington anyway. It wasn’t like they’d formulated and executed the trip together.
He stopped in front of her, his lips curving up. “And you have to admit it was pretty great.”
Incredible. Right up to the point when she’d suggested they see each other again soon. He’d said, “Sure, I always call you up when I’m in town.”
Like she was a convenience. And there was that word again. She didn’t want to be anyone’s hook-up girl. She’d quashed her burgeoning feelings, but it had maybe been too late. She’d already been crazy infatuated with him. So much so that when she’d seen him at Thanksgiving, she’d allowed herself to be the convenience she didn’t want to be.
But no more.
She gave him an arch look. “So it was a great weekend. You still can’t argue it was more than a hook-up. I walked away from that without knowing when—or if—I’d see you again.”
He frowned at her. “That’s absurd. You’re our attorney. Of course you’d see me again.”
Was he being purposely obnoxious?
He put his hands on his hips. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Thanksgiving was just a hook-up, too? I brought you dinner.”
After they’d flirted all day at a winery event they’d just happened to meet at. She’d accepted his sister Tori’s invitation to attend without realizing Liam would be there. Wait, had he known? “Did you know I would be at the winery that day?”
He arched a brow. “Who do you think suggested we invite you?”
Damn it. She didn’t want to know that. “Now you tell me,” she muttered.
He flashed her a grin. “Am I wearing you down?”
She thought of what had happened next, after yet another spectacular night together. She tightened her arms across her chest. “No. Do you remember what we did after that night?” She watched his expression go from thoughtful to confused to blank. “That’s right. Absolutely nothing. You went back to Denver without a word.”
He winced. “Hey, I tried to see you at Christmas, but you weren’t here.”
Because she’d gone out of town with her aunt and uncle—the better to avoid Liam. With every hook-up, she’d fallen a little more under the spell of their attraction while he’d seemed impervious. She hadn’t wanted to lose her heart. She still didn’t.
“And I actually did try to ask you out for New Year’s, but you wouldn’t return my texts. When you did text me back—after the new year, I might add—you said you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
Oh, she’d wanted to see him, but she couldn’t. Not on the terms he’d expected. He couldn’t even call her. She was willing to bet her house that asking her “out” wouldn’t have involved actually going “out.” “I lost interest.”
She pretended to stifle a yawn. “Admit it, the sex wasn’t that great.” If she’d been Pinocchio, her nose would’ve stretched to Hawaii.
His gaze dipped over her body appreciatively. “Well now I have to call bullshit,” he said softly. “I think your pants are definitely on fire.”
“Knock it off.”
He inched toward her. “What? Can I help it if we set off enough sparks to start a conflagration? It’s been like that since the start. You remember that, right?”
How could she forget? That first time had been nothing short of explosive. He’d come to her office after she’d read the details of Alex Archer’s trust to his family. As Alex’s identical twin brother, Liam perhaps felt his suicide the most keenly. He was definitely the most pissed off, and he’d directed that anger at her.
Fourteen months ago, he’d stalked into her office, his eyes blazing. She’d been weary and overwhelmed by trying to rein in her own crippling grief while she’d visited the Archers just days after Alex’s death. Alone in her office, she’d wanted—no needed—to open the emotional floodgates.
“What the hell kind of attorney are you?” Liam had thundered. “What sort of hourly rate do you to charge to help a guy off himself? Do you have a special package for that?”
His words had socked her in the gut. Hard. Tears had risen fast and bitter, and her breath had gone immediately shallow.
“Get out,” she’d rasped.
He’d advanced on her until only her desk had separated them. “Why didn’t you tell any of us? Why would you let my family—my parents for fuck’s sake—why would you let them go through this?”
She’d wiped her hand over her eyes and gladly welcomed fury to replace her agonizing sadness. “You think I knew what he was doing?” She’d glared at him, glad to have someone to unleash her own frustration on. “You think I somehow helped him? He told me he was preparing for the worst case scenario, that his lung issues would likely send him to an early grave. I had no idea he intended to kill himself!”
He’d sneered at her, his face so familiar because it was the image of Alex—the man she’d come to know and like so much over the past year. “You’re a fool then.”
“Screw you,” she’d spat. “And get out of my office.”
He’d yelled something else at her, something she didn’t remember because at that moment she’d realized he was crying. She’d never seen tears of anger. She’d reached out to touch his face, and everything had changed. He pulled her against him and kissed her. Moments later, they’d cleared her desktop and had torn at each other’s clothes.
“You’re overthinking,” he said, drawing her back to the here and now. She was back in his parents’ sitting room instead of her dim office fifteen months ago.
“I’m trying to forget.” As if she ever could. His scent, his taste, his touch, everything about him was seared into every part of her.
“You always overthink,” he whispered, moving closer until he was just in front of her.
“Don’t.” She refused to look at him. If she did, she’d be ruined. She’d succumb to Liam’s magnetism or whatever the hell it was that seemed to be her own personal kryptonite.
Then he touched her, his fingertips grazing along the edge of her jaw. “I can’t help it. I don’t want to walk away. It’s too bad you brought that other guy.”
She looked at him then. His dark lashes drooped over his slate-blue eyes, and it was like he was a tractor beam on the goddamn Death Star.
She steeled herself against him. “Why, because it interferes with your sexual agenda? Tell me Liam, would you have asked me to be your date tonight?”
He pressed his lips together, and she already knew the answer.
“Great. Good talk. I brought Stuart just so I could hopefully avoid these little moments with you. They make me feel so pathetic. Thanks for that.” She gave him a brittle smile, dropped her arms and tried to step around him.
But his arm snaked around her and brought her hard against his chest. “I don’t want you to feel pathetic. I can’t ask you to be my date at my brother’s wedding.”
She simultaneously wanted to push up against him to feel his heat and knee him in the nuts. “Why, because I’m the woman who helped your brother kill himself? No one thinks that anymore, if they ever did past the first few weeks when grief controlled all of our lives. No, Liam, the hang-up is all you.” She pulled back, but he held her fast.
“Please don’t go. I miss being with you. We have fun together, don’t we?” He splayed his hands across her back and buried his nose in the hair at her temple. “God, you smell so amazing. Like Aubrey. Delicious, fabulous, gorgeous Aubrey.”
Every resolve she had was stretched to the limit. She didn’t know how much more she could take. The desire to put her arms around him, to kiss him, to fold her body into his was nearly painful.
Man, this was sick.
His hand skimmed up her back and cupped the side of her neck, tilting her face toward his. “Tell me you don’t miss me too.” He kissed the flesh next to her eye then her cheek then her jawline. “Tell me.”
“I don’t miss you.” Naturally, because she was weak and probably more than halfway in love with this jerk, her voice broke at the very end of that lie.
“You really suck at lying.” His lips found hers in a searing kiss.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and closed her eyes, seeing him in her mind and ripping every spectacular piece of clothing from his athletic, rugged body. She knew him so well—the rippled muscles of his chest, the hard curve of his ass, the deep moan he let out when she . . .
Damn, she should not be doing this!
But he knew just how to kiss her. His tongue was hot and precise, spearing past her lips and ramping her lust to ridiculous height. She curled her hands behind his neck and pressed on his flesh, opening her mouth to his exploration and launching her own invasion. This was heaven. This was bliss. This was Liam.
He bent her backward and held her tight, his fingertips digging into her back. Overcome, she thrust her hands into his thick hair and threaded it through her eager fingers as she’d longed to do since he’d grabbed her from the bathroom.
They could be up against the door or over on the couch in less than a minute. Wild, crazed, mindblowing sex . . . and back at the reception in under ten minutes. They’d done it before—last summer at Derek and Chloe’s wedding. They’d ducked into the small office at the back of the Ridgeview cottage and screwed each other hard and fast. She could still smell the scent of lavender and grass wafting through the open window. In fact, she couldn’t smell lavender or grass now and not think of Liam. Maybe she’d never be able to attend another wedding reception without thinking of him either.
No. He was not going to own her. She had a life, and he wasn’t going to be part of it. They wanted very different things. Hell, she knew what she wanted. He only knew what he wanted right now. And that wasn’t enough.
She ripped her mouth from his and shoved at his chest. On trembling legs, she stumbled backward, one hand wiping her wet lips, the other smoothing the skirt of her dress down over her thighs because it had started to hike up. Apparently even her clothing was on board with another Liam Archer hook-up.
“Liam, I’m leaving. I brought a date. Stuart is nice. Respectable. He doesn’t deserve me kissing you.”
Liam’s face was flushed, his gorgeous hair mussed. “He doesn’t deserve to be kissing you.”
She gritted her teeth. “That’s not what I said. We aren’t to that . . . stage.” How laughable. She and Liam hadn’t paid any attention to such nonsense. They’d gone pedal to the metal since day one. It was time to slam on the brakes. Again. “It’s none of your business.”
She took a deep breath to calm her racing pulse and pressed her hands against her cheeks, hoping she didn’t look as worked up as Liam did. She likely did, but it was warm in the main rooms where the reception was going on, and she could blame it on the heat.
“When you get bored with him, call me,” Liam said as she walked past him.
She was surprised he was letting her go so easily, but she heard the arrogance in his tone and caught the smug set of his mouth. She paused at the door and turned. He’d also pivoted.
Pulling her lips into a saccharine sweet smile she hoped gave him a toothache, she said, “Even if I do get bored, I will not call you. We’re done. And next time you try something like that, I will use every bit of kickboxing I’ve ever learned and beat you into the floor.”