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Book VIII of the Nature of Desire Series

(Should be read after reading Ice Queen and Mirror of My Soul; Branded Sanctuary may also enhance enjoyment, but not required)

 

Originally released March 21, 2014; re-released with new publisher/cover January 2016.

After too many failed relationships, Gen has settled into a quiet, acceptable life as a middle-aged single woman. But then she meets Mistress Lyda and her sexy male sub Noah, and the two of them give her a different view of "acceptable" -- as well as a renewed longing for the type of love and romance she thought had passed her by.

In this book, Joey W. Hill at long last returns to the world of the Nature of Desire series. Gen has been Marguerite Winterman’s employee at Tea Leaves for some time, and has a close relationship with the reserved, intimidating woman. It isn’t until Mistress Lyda steps into her life that Gen understands why she’s always felt safe under Marguerite’s direction. And with the intriguing Noah guiding her in the world of Domination/submission, Gen’s about to discover a new way to love—and live.

Chapter One Excerpt

© Copyright 2013 - All Rights Reserved

Disconcerting.

Unsettling, perplexing or perturbing might mean the same thing according to her thesaurus, but Gen decided disconcerting was the best word for the woman sitting at Table Seven in Tea Leaves. Disconcerting rolled off the tongue a certain way the other words didn’t. Emotions and people were like that. Put the same emotion inside ten people, and it would look different on each one of them.

Disconcerting required an object to impact. Someone couldn’t be disconcerting without being disconcerting to someone. In this case, that object was Gen, even though Gen worked for Marguerite Winterman. Marguerite had Margaret Thatcher’s aura of command, Marilyn Monroe’s ability to mesmerize, and a lion-tamer’s touch with dangerous creatures. Maybe because Marguerite was one of those dangerous creatures and understood them all too well. It was part of the reason Gen had given her the nickname “M”, because Marguerite had the intimidating air of the Bond movie female director of MI-6, in spades.

Yet, despite all that, their newest customer disconcerted Gen in a way Marguerite never had.

As she checked on other customers, Gen tried to pinpoint what it was about the woman. Her appearance gave mixed messages. She was beautiful, yet not wearing anything to enhance that beauty. Her pale-green bill cap had Growing Things Nursery logo embroidered on it, a match for the breast pocket of the baby doll T-shirt she wore over snug, stressed jeans and work shoes. When she removed the cap to run the point of her wrist along her damp brow, Gen saw her braided hair was a dark red with some gold highlights, evident from the loose wisps around her face.

Like a lot of true redheads, she had milk-white skin, despite her outdoor job. The T-shirt showed off generous breasts, large enough to swell out the sides of the cotton against her biceps. Her arms displayed smooth muscle definition. The way she moved made it clear the body beneath the clothes was equally fit.

Not butch. Nor diet-obsessed, where there was no meat on her. Just toned and strong, curved in all the ways that drew male eyes. As well as female eyes, given the way Gen was checking her out.

It wasn’t the first time Gen had noticed a woman was attractive. She defined herself as hetero, since she’d been married twice and had always dated the opposite sex. Sure, she’d experimented with friends in high school, but what girl didn’t? Women weren’t as defined by straight and gay as the guys were. As she got older, she knew she had a bi-curious side to her, but it wasn’t anything she’d ever been tempted to explore, beyond idle fantasy and pleasuring the eye. Yet when she looked at this woman, the dormant temptation wasn’t dormant at all. Sensation fluttered against her thighs like butterfly wings and caused a tightness in her chest.

Maybe it was the woman’s air of authority that made her distracting. She was probably the owner of the nursery, because it was clear she was used to directing things, not being directed. When she’d first walked in, those gunmetal-gray eyes had pinned Gen in place behind the counter.

“I’m here to see Marguerite.”

“She’s coming in around nine, about fifteen minutes from now. Is there something I can help you with, ma’am?”

That unsettling gaze ran over every visible part of Gen, the top of her head to her hips. “Who are you?”

“I’m Gen,” Gen said politely.

“I’ll wait.” The redhead looked up at the board. “Do you have regular coffee, Gen?”

At one time, the answer to that would have been a resounding no, but since she’d married Tyler, Marguerite had capitulated to having at least one coffee option on the menu. No cappuccinos or anything fancy. A good Colombian blend.

When Gen told the woman what they had, she nodded. “A cup of that.”

“All right. If you want to take a seat, it will be just a moment. I have a batch brewing now.”

Marguerite’s visitor had then taken her seat at Table Seven. Gen had felt her regard while she busied herself behind the counter, even when she left it and made the rounds to the other tables to ensure no one needed anything. Though Gen smiled and chatted with the regulars as usual, that scrutiny was a living thing teasing the hairs on her nape.

How did she tell a customer, a friend or associate of Marguerite’s, to stop staring at her? She wished Chloe were here to help with opening. But with Chloe and Marguerite both now married, Gen tried to do it solo at least a couple times a week, giving the women time with their husbands. Some mornings, the solo opening underscored her permanent single status, but she usually squelched that blue thought pretty fast in favor of the sense of accomplishment running the business by herself gave her.

Since Gen had finished those accounting courses at the community college, Marguerite had even let her take over the bookkeeping. She might have been born trailer-park trash, but how a person was born didn’t dictate how they lived. That was up to them.

I told you, Momma.

The thought inspired Gen to meet the woman’s gaze. Ms. Disconcerting didn’t even blink those long-lashed eyes. Gen gave her a dignified nod, not willing to simply duck her head, and returned to the counter. She’d never been the subject of such intent scrutiny. Not since her first day on the job, when Marguerite had watched her in a similar way. As if every movement Gen made, everything she said, every smile, meant something far deeper, Gen emitting signals she didn’t even realize she was sending. She’d really needed that job, so she’d managed to stay cool, professional, asking questions about what she didn’t know, and making up for her mistakes quickly.

If Chloe had been here, her nonstop comfortable chatter would have helped. Her irrepressible friend would have turned so no one but Gen could see her expression as she rolled her eyes about the mysterious visitor and mouthed a what the hell’s her problem? at Gen.

At least the low rumble of conversation from other customers kept silence from becoming a taut, awkward bridge Gen might have tried to fill with inane small talk. Couldn’t the intimidating woman pull out a cell phone to check her messages, the way most people did?

The coffee was done. Gen poured it, picked up napkin, spoon and condiments, and left the sanctuary of the counter. The woman’s work clothes and sweaty appearance should have put Gen more at ease. Instead, she came off like Red Sonja showing up in bloodstained battle armor, making Gen think about her own appearance. Today she wore a Tea Leaves staff shirt. Not a shaped babydoll, just a medium T-shirt that didn’t highlight her figure at all, though she did knot it at the hip of her fashionably frayed jeans over rhinestone sandals. She had her hair pulled up and held with sticks, and though it framed her face attractively enough, she was overdue to dye her roots.

She looked like a comfortable, pleasant thirtysomething, as sexless as a spayed cocker spaniel. This woman, around the same age as Gen, could don a ball gown and walk the red carpet at the Oscars. She was a woman who still considered herself a sexual being, not one who lacked the energy or hope to pursue the idea anymore.

Gen set the coffee in front of her. The redhead tapped the table. “Spoon on my right,” she said. “Napkin on the left. No sugar or cream. I drink it straight.”

“So does Tyler. Anything different, he says you might as well be a girl in frilly pink at a tea party.”

The customer’s mouth made a sinuous twist. What was probably a sunblock lip balm made her lips soft, gave them a faint sheen. That butterfly fluttering became the stroke of a long, firm-stemmed seagull feather up Gen’s thighs, teasing her navel, her sternum.

“He said that to get a rise out of Marguerite,” the woman said.

She spoke as if her tongue caressed her teeth when she spoke, the syllables coming out with a touch of breath. During sex, Gen wondered if that sighing sound was more pronounced, spinning the words with sugar and giving them a sweet heat, like cookies from the oven.

Had she woken up on the wrong side of her sexual orientation this morning? Was that even possible? Chloe would know.

“Yes.” Gen cleared her throat. “He only said it once, though. She salted his coffee.”

“Marriage has mellowed her. The Marguerite I know would have used a strong laxative.”

“Well, they do live together. Maybe it was enlightened self-interest.”

Gen colored when the woman’s gaze remained on her, though she noticed the corners of her lips twitched. As Gen followed her direction about the napkin and spoon, the redhead watched her, not what she was doing. It was the first time she’d been instructed on table setting by a customer, but Gen prided herself on her customer service. It was an odd though not unreasonable demand. As she laid the folded napkin on the opposite side of the cup, the woman reached up and touched Gen’s hair.

Her fingertips slid beneath the strands at her temple and brushed against her scalp. “Your hair is a beautiful color,” she observed. “Golden brown, like honey straight from the hive. Why do you have it in this god-awful scraped-up mess?”

If the woman was being catty, Gen could have broken the spell and set her in her place, quick and sharp. She was far past being put down by another female. But the woman’s expression and tone were merely thoughtful. She caught a wisp between her knuckles, her firm, assured touch holding Gen still. Nerves tingled along Gen’s cheekbone and down her throat like a trail of breadcrumbs, begging those fingers to follow them.

“I…it’s quick to put up in the morning with the sticks.”

“Hmm.” The woman’s other elbow propped on the table as she leaned forward and plucked out the sticks. Gen’s hair tumbled to her shoulders in a thick twist.

What the hell are you doing? Those were the words that should have come from her mouth. Instead, she stood there, mesmerized by the woman’s gall or something else. Probably the way she was stroking through Gen’s hair, those tiny caresses of her scalp. As if there were no such things as personal space boundaries, or other customers. Maybe they’d think the woman was just admiring her hair. Gen wasn’t sure what to do or say. Her knees were quivering in an odd way under the woman’s direct gaze.

“That feels good, Gen,” the woman murmured. “Doesn’t it?”

Gen nodded, a quick jerk.

“Sometimes it’s that way, first thing in the morning. A need for touch, to dispel the night’s loneliness. Something to connect us to the world, something that says the world notices us. And likes what it sees.” Her lips curved.

The redhead’s faint scent of female sweat was overlaid by earth and summer leaves. Beneath all of it was a light body spray, an aroma Gen recognized, because working for M had given her a very well-developed sense of smell. It was a blend intended to soothe the senses. Chamomile, lavender. What would Red Sonja need to soothe herself about? The day’s body count? The fact she broke her nail gutting her enemies?

What would happen if she reached out and touched her hair? Gen got only as far as imagining her hand lifting. It seemed inappropriate.

Like this wasn’t? Yes, M, I started the day by letting a customer play with my hair. Then Table Six wanted to give me a foot massage and I had to be fair to them…

The woman’s nails scraped her scalp. For a brief moment her hand tightened, pulling on the hair beneath in such strong contrast to the lighter touch Gen’s full attention snapped back to her. An incredible sensation arrowed right down her center. She swallowed, and the woman’s gaze followed the movement, though Gen wondered if what she was really following was the direction of the other invisible but very significant reaction.

Gen felt a trickle of panic, the reaction to a situation where she was over her head and might end up doing something really wrong to extricate herself from it. She didn’t react to women like this. But then, no woman had ever actually touched her like this.

That was when Red Sonja let her go.

“Thank you, Gen.” Laying the sticks down next to her coffee, she lifted the cup to her lips. “My name is Lyda Coltrane, if you need to let Marguerite know who her visitor is. You can return to your duties.”

Now her voice reminded Gen of early autumn, the advance of cool weather and lingering heat of summer mixing, neither season willing to be denied.

Her gray eyes flickered past Gen, a dismissal, before they focused on the display wall where Marguerite kept her special collection of tea sets and memorabilia. The panicked feeling morphed into something else. This woman was screwing with her. This was a friend of Marguerite’s?

“I…no offense, Ms. Coltrane, but touching…inappropriate touching, isn’t allowed here.”

It wasn’t written up in policy, but tea drinkers usually didn’t molest the staff. Gen had to assert some kind of defense. She wasn’t a teenager, so easily intimidated.

“It didn’t feel inappropriate to me. How about to you?” Lyda blew on the contents of the coffee cup.

“I’m not…I’ve been married. Twice.”

Lyda’s penetrating gaze lifted to hers. “Your point?”

“Let me know if you need a refill on the coffee.” Pivoting, Gen moved with stiff purpose to the other tables. No one gave her odd looks, so her customers must have missed the hair incident. Or they chalked it up to one woman asking another woman about her hair, right? Maybe she was overreacting.

Disconcerting. That fit Lyda Coltrane, for sure.

The phone rang, giving her an excuse to retreat behind the counter. As she bent over her pad to take a phone order, she had to hold her hair back on one side to see. Damn it, Lyda had her sticks. It had been awhile since she’d worn her hair down. Feeling the strands tumble forward made her feel…girlish. Pretty. Something she’d re-think if she saw a mirror. She probably looked like she had a limp dish mop on her head.

As she hung up, the side door opened, flooding her with relief. Glancing down the access hallway to Marguerite’s office, she saw her boss come up the two stairs, her heels tapping against the old wood floor. “Good morning.”

Lyda Coltrane might come off as scary in the right circumstances, but Marguerite Winterman was that way 24/7. Tall, with moonlight-colored hair and direct, pale-blue eyes that could laser through steel if needed, she was a woman who commanded attention and compliance from everyone around her. While she could be so calm it was eerie—Chloe’s words, but they fit—they knew the loving and generous spirit beneath that reserve. The three of them had been through a lot together. As a result, no matter how intimidating M was, Gen and Chloe were as protective of her as she was of them. She was friend, confidante and family, all rolled up in one. The world would balance again. Marguerite was here.

As Marguerite snapped on the light in her office, Gen moved out of view of the public floor to stand in her doorway. “You have a visitor. Lyda Coltrane?”

Marguerite’s gaze became marginally warmer, which said Lyda was a friendly acquaintance, not close friend. No surprise there, since Marguerite didn’t have a great many in that inner circle.

“All right. Will you bring in some of the new Ceylon from the storeroom? I’ll cover things here while Lyda and I talk.”

“Sure. We have a phone order for six. It’s written up on the counter and I’ve gotten it started. They said it would be about thirty minutes.”

“All right.” Marguerite put her purse in the bottom drawer of her desk. “I like your hair down. You haven’t worn it that way in awhile. And you’re flushed, eyes bright as spring leaves.” Her silken brow rose. “New love interest?”

“No,” Gen said emphatically. “Lyda took it down. She—”

Marguerite’s lips firmed, her blue eyes getting a less friendly look, hastening Gen to explain further. “She was checking the color, said she liked it.” She’d actually said it was beautiful, but it was clear Gen shouldn’t have said anything. “I—”

Marguerite held up a finger. “It’s not your fault, Gen. Lyda is like that. You’ve done nothing wrong. Ceylon?”

At a loss, Gen chose to escape. Heading out the side door, she made the turn into Marguerite’s private garden, stopping to put her hands to her cheeks. She was flushed. And she’d just stood there while Lyda was touching her. What the hell…

A walk in Marguerite’s gardens tended to calm the mind. Taking a couple breaths, Gen inhaled the scents from the herb garden, trailed her fingers through the fountain as a good morning to the circling koi, then followed the stepping stones to the storage building. Just before she reached it, a thought brought her up short.

Lyda is like that. Of course. It should have been obvious.

Less than a couple years ago, a break-in at Tea Leaves, a terrible event connected to M’s past and one that nearly lost her both M and Chloe, had taught Gen what lay beneath Marguerite’s formidable calm. During that time, she’d also found out some pretty eye-opening things about her boss. Marguerite was a sexual Dominant, a Mistress. Tyler, was also one—a Master that is. Chloe’s husband Brendan was a submissive who inhabited that world.

Eventually, Chloe had revealed to Gen the shocking fact Marguerite had been Brendan’s Mistress of choice before meeting Chloe. While Chloe wasn’t a Mistress, she was a sexually adventurous young woman. Somehow, she and Brendan were making it work, but there was an undeniably strong bond between them, more than the usual overt affection of newlyweds.

Before those revelations, Gen hadn’t known anything about the BDSM world except the distortions of pop culture, but once she learned—again through Chloe—more about what a Mistress was, it had certainly explained a lot about the effortless power Marguerite seemed to exercise over everyone in her world, though Chloe said that Dominants were as diverse as any other group. Not all Mistresses were like Marguerite.

Actually, I think there’s no one like Marguerite, Chloe had said, with a twinkle in her eye.

Lyda exuded similar qualities. Obviously. So it made sense. She was a Mistress. Maybe she had trouble containing those boundaries within a proper environment, and Gen was just inexperienced in dealing with that kind of thing.

Even though Chloe frequently encouraged Gen to join them at The Zone, the BDSM club they frequented, and in which Tyler had an ownership interest, Gen had always declined. It wasn’t her world. She wasn’t drawn to that. Or rather, by not exposing herself, she was making sure she wasn’t. She’d been down the sexually adventurous road in her early twenties. Two marriages had pretty much burned her out on all of it.

She had gone as far as looking up the club online. It was a classy, high-end establishment, the membership fee making her blanch. Marguerite had never encouraged her to visit it the way Chloe had, but that didn’t mean anything. Marguerite really wasn’t the “C’mon, girlfriend, let’s get our freak on at the BDSM club tonight” type.

Gen grinned, equilibrium restored. This was her world. It was comfortable, quiet, what she knew. Things made sense. She amused herself by imagining Lyda in stereotypical dominatrix gear. Sleek, form-fitting black latex that clung to hips and trim waist. Those generous breasts would swell out the top of a corset, her long red hair loose and caressing pale shoulders. She’d be wearing gloves, the kind that fit like a second skin and went past a woman’s elbows. Gen had a black, silky pair she’d picked up at a yard sale. She wore them at home sometimes for no reason, since she had nowhere to wear them.

She imagined Lyda reaching out, black-clad fingers touching Gen’s face, then sliding up to her temple, into her hair, tightening there. Gen would sink to her knees, right in front of those sleek, latex-covered thighs. Would she put her lips on one and stay there, eyes closed, as Lyda stroked her hair?

She’d moved into the storeroom, was measuring out tea, but that thought brought her to a halt. Arousal dampened her panties. Weird. Another word for bizarre, peculiar and uncanny. Uncanny. She liked that one. She’d become addicted to the thesaurus as part of her collage hobby, trading out words for the patterns she created, preferring the aesthetic look of one word over another because of its combination of consonant tails and fat vowels. Other times she just liked how it fit the tone of the picture she was making. Earth instead of dirt… Rain instead of water… A choice of one versus the other made a different impression on the senses.

She was spending too much time daydreaming. The phone was going to start ringing with more orders, the door opening on the mid-morning rush. She shouldn’t be dallying, not when Marguerite was handling customers and a visitor.

She laid a light towel over the container holding the Ceylon, seeing no need to seal it for a quick dash. Until it was too late. She came out of the storeroom at the quick march and ran smack up against another human being.

Tea leaves did a tsunami wave over the dislodged towel, the fruit-and-molasses smell clouding the air. Oh, shit. She should have put a lid on the bowl, should have…

A pair of strong male hands caught hold of Gen to keep her from tumbling, but in so doing, the kind stranger was unable to defend himself from the onslaught and took the shower of leaves square in the face. Now he was sneezing.

“Oh God. I’m so sorry. Are you all right?” She snatched a paper towel from the storeroom, wet it down in the utility sink and came back out with it, bending down to insert it in his field of view. He had his hands on his knees, his head down. “Here, wipe this under your nose and on your face.”

He managed a quick grin between another couple hard sneezes. “Sorry.” He complied with her direction, took another paper towel from her to blow his nose, then one more damp one to finish things off. As he straightened, she saw he was a handsome mid-twenties, slim but charismatic, his sleek dark hair pulled back to show sharply sculpted facial features. He wore black-and-silver braided bracelets double-wrapped on his wrists, black jeans and a white T-shirt. A matching choker was wrapped around his throat, completing a somewhat Goth look. No eye makeup or black nails, though.

“Subdued Goth?” she ventured, seeking something to say other than apologies.

Brown eyes like rich cocoa sparkled at her, setting off those butterflies again. She must be going through some weird hormone surge today.

“I teach sailing at the community college,” he explained. “Runny black eye liner scares the students.”

“But you are a Goth?”

He shrugged, cleared his throat. “When I go to a club, I might trick myself out with the full regalia, but not so much on a day-to-day basis anymore. I’m evolving. I was never much of a music-inspired Goth anyhow.”

This was the kind of eccentric conversation Chloe loved. She’d jump with both feet into someone’s head, ferret out every intriguing thing about them. Usually Gen had a sideline seat to enjoy the show, but maybe today she’d try something different. Maybe she’d be the one daring to find out more.

“Is there another type of Goth?” Stepping back into the storeroom, she began to measure out more Ceylon, trying not to think of the gimlet eye Marguerite would level upon her for her carelessness. It wasn’t cheap, one of the Sri Lanka teas that came from the highest elevations.

“I’m inspired by movie and literary geniuses of the genre,” he said, leaning in the door, entirely comfortable. Of course, trying to asphyxiate someone with tea did bring down social barriers. “Like Edgar Allan Poe.”

“I really don’t know much about Goths,” she admitted. “I didn’t know there were different…sects.”

“That’s all right.” He grinned again. “My perspective isn’t that common. I tend to do my own thing. I was born in the wrong time period.”

She replaced the lid, sealed the container and efficiently swept the counter. As she moved to the doorway and he straightened, she saw he was probably close to six feet. Not quite as tall as Marguerite’s Tyler, but still a nice height.

“Maybe you weren’t born in the wrong time period,” she suggested. “Maybe you were alive then, and now you’re here, reincarnated. You can’t stay in the same time period forever.”

Good God, Chloe was rubbing off on her. Not only was she talking like her, she was finding the topic engaging.

“Except during sex,” he observed. “That’s the only way you can make time stop, during any lifetime.”

She gave him a sharp look, prepared to say something a little more distancing, but his serious expression said he wasn’t flirting, just making a simple observation. “Spoken like a guy,” she responded lightly.

“No,” he said. “It’s not like that. Everyone knows about that kind of sex. Or they should.”

He met her gaze as directly as Lyda did, but there was a different tone to it. Whereas Lyda’s gaze could hold her like a restraint, his drew her to him like the offer of a young satyr to dance with him on a moonlit night. She’d done a collage of a fairy ring recently, a birthday gift for a friend in her book club who loved fairies. That was the only reason she could think why such an impractical idea had jumped into her mind.

She decided to take it back to safer footing. “Favorite Edgar Allan Poe quote?”

“‘Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.’” His lips quirked. “My favorite partly because I liked the quote, partly because it taught me the dangers of academic pretentiousness.”

A college grad. Of course. Usually she had an aversion to that type, knowing how little she’d have in common with them and not really wanting to be reminded of her comparative lack of education, but the comment made her curious. “How so?”

He sighed. “I wrote it up on the board for a class, a visual aid for a presentation on Poe. Couldn’t figure out what all the snickering was about until the end. I had left the ‘r’ out of peering.”

“‘Deep into that darkness, peeing…’” She chuckled. “Well, conceivably, one could pee into the darkness and experience fear, doubt and wonder at the same time.”

It was stupid to get uptight about it. Lots of people hadn’t attended college. She hadn’t done well in school, too busy living up to low expectations while her single mother worked. Gen had become a hairdresser to make ends meet and found she did that well enough, but she didn’t have any real flair or passion for it. Her life was littered with mediocre attempts at a lot of things. She’d liked writing poetry in middle school, until she read one to her mother and Momma made it clear girls from trailer parks didn’t write poetry. They found a guy who, if they were lucky, didn’t drink to excess and beat them, and settled down to have babies.

It had probably been very bad poetry. She’d thrown it away, but in the past few years she’d thought about going back to school to get an English degree, just for the pleasure of learning. Which was ridiculous. Not only because she didn’t have the money to waste on “fun” classes, but because she’d made so many mistakes early on in her life, with education and men, learning a practical skill like accounting had made more sense. She channeled her creative side into her crafts. Collages required only access to discarded magazines, newspapers and other recycled paper sources, and a healthy supply of glue. She loved her monthly book club, though.

“Oh.” She realized she was shirking another responsibility. She really was off her game today. “This is a private area. The main entrance to Tea Leaves is on the front porch. Did you get lost?” She asked it kindly but firmly.

He didn’t seem offended. “Mrs. Winterman said I could check out her new garden additions, to get ideas for the nursery. I think she was trying to get rid of me while she and my…Ms. Coltrane talked.

“Oh. Okay.”

“I…work for Lyda,” he supplied. “When not doing the sailing.”

She noted the pause, as if the answer wasn’t as straightforward as that, but he’d moved on to introductions. “I’m Noah. Can I help you carry that?”

“Gen. Pleasure to meet you. No, I sealed it this time. We could drop kick it back to the kitchen if needed. In my own defense, I wasn’t expecting a tree to spring up right in front of the door.”

When she earned another easygoing grin, she couldn’t help but note he was really handsome. It wasn’t exactly his looks, which were a ten on any scale, but what lay beneath them, a compelling quality that kept drawing the eye back to his face, those distracting lips. “Do you know Brendan? He teaches drama at the college.”

“He helped me get the sailing gig when I moved down here for my grandmother a few months ago. I came from New Orleans.”

“From New Orleans to Tampa. I can’t imagine. New Orleans seems so exotic.”

“You guys have Miami and the Keys. Disney World.”

“The first two are a bit of a drive from here. But I’ll give you Disney World.” As she came out of the storeroom, he reached past her, closed the door so she didn’t have to do it while balancing the tea. “Did you meet Brendan in college?”

“No. He was visiting New Orleans a few years back and he and I met in one of the clubs there. We hit it off, had a lot of common interests.”

A club. And he worked for Lyda. Should she just ask outright if it was a BDSM club? Chloe would. But she wasn’t Chloe, no matter how she was trying to channel her. It had been her problem all her life. Always feeling out of sync, no matter where she ended up. Except Tea Leaves. She fit here. She didn’t have to prove anything here, be anything she wasn’t.

Noah followed her to the side entrance, apparently comfortable not saying anything further, which was good, because she wasn’t sure where to go from there. He held the screen door for her, reaching out to steady her on the steps. Her nerve endings reacted with tingling pleasure to the long, strong fingers that briefly gripped her side, brushed her lower back. As she glanced back at him, she noticed his lips were red, shaped nicely. She wanted to run a fingertip over them, see what they felt like.

He was on the step right below her, which put them at eye level, his one arm stretched out to hold the door behind her, the other on the rail, making their bodies form an intimate circle, one of those inadvertent things that could happen between two strangers with chemistry. A dark brow lifted at her pause, and in that moment she reached out and touched his mouth.

It was soft and giving, a potential for wet heat that firmed under her touch as he parted his lips, let her stroke over them. His sinfully sweet gaze remained on her the whole time. Unlike Lyda’s, his wasn’t penetrating. It felt more like he was…waiting.

“I’m sorry,” she said, drawing back. “I’m not sure why I did that.”

“Because you wanted to,” he said simply. “The best reason to do anything.”


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