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Authors: Elle James

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Decker grinned. “I think you’re outvoted.” He scratched the dog behind the ears. “If it makes you feel better, I won’t kiss you.” His gaze rose to capture hers and he added softly, “If you don’t kiss me first.”

“I don’t know.” She bit down on her bottom lip again. Being with Decker stirred up feelings she wasn’t sure she could handle.

“I want to thank you for saving my life.” Decker stared at her, his face sincere, his gaze compelling. “Please.”

For a long moment, she debated the foolishness of leading on a man who could never be more than a casual acquaintance. She took a deep breath and said, “I walk Otis around three—in between the lunch and evening crowd.” Hell, she’d done it now. When she should have said no, she agreed to walk with him. Well, what could happen? She would be on a public beach in full daylight. With people around, she wouldn’t be tempted to kiss him.

Her gaze shifted to his lips. Just because she was tempted to kiss him now, didn’t mean she’d be tempted on the beach. They’d be moving, not staring at each other.

“Three o’clock, then,” he said, smiling. “I’ll be on the beach between the bar and the pier.”

Roxi nodded. “Okay. Now if you don’t need anything else, I have supplies to unload.”

She hurried back out to her SUV and gathered several bags and carried them into the bar, passing Decker on the way to the kitchen where she unloaded groceries onto the counter.

Frank stood at the preparation counter, his gaze on the window between the bar and the kitchen, a frown pulling his bushy gray brows together. “If Decker is bothering you, just say the word and I’ll send him on his way.”

Bothering her?
Oh, yeah, he bothered her all right. But not the way Frank was talking about. He made her feel things she wasn’t sure she should be feeling. With her old friend glaring out the window at Decker, Roxi laughed. “He’s not bothering me.”

“Like I said. Say the word and I can show him the door, and tell him he’s not welcome to ever come back.”

Roxi leaned up on her toes and kissed Frank’s grizzled cheek. “Thanks, but I’m not thirteen anymore. I’ll be twenty-seven next month, and I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“Doesn’t hurt to have backup. Just in case.”

“I know. And I appreciate the sentiment.” She hugged him briefly and went back to work putting the supplies on the shelves.

“What do you know about Decker?”

That he could kiss like nobody’s business and his muscles were rock-solid. “Not a lot.” Roxi’s body heated.

“Keep Otis with you, when you’re around him.”

She nodded, hiding a smile. “I will.” She didn’t tell Frank that Otis seemed to be on Decker’s side.

Frank reached around her to grab the sugar canister. “I worry about you.”

“I know you do. You’re worse than my mother was.”

“You know your mother never forgave herself for what that man did to you when you lived in the city.”

“How could she have anticipated something like that happening to me? I was thirteen. I thought I knew everything. I broke her one major rule and stepped out of the apartment for what I thought would be five minutes to run to the store.”

She’d wanted to surprise her mother by having dinner ready for her. The woman worked two jobs and rarely got home before eight at night. Roxi wanted to make the only thing she knew how—spaghetti. Only they didn’t have any noodles. So she’d taken change from the swear jar and hurried out of the apartment and down the stairs to the street below.

The grocery store was two blocks away. Two blocks and two alleys away. She had been in such a hurry she’d nearly tripped over a kitten. When she stopped to see if she’d hurt it, a man stepped out of the alley and snatched her from behind, clamped a hand over her mouth and dragged her into the shadows. No one heard her scream, no one came to help.

Pushing the nightmare to the back of her mind, Roxi smiled. “It’s been a long time. I’m well over it.”

“Then why don’t you date? You’ve never had a steady boyfriend.” The old army sergeant shook his head. “It’s not natural.”

“Oh, Frank. I’m fine. Just picky.” And scared. Other than being raped at thirteen, she’d never been with a man. She read books and watched R-rated movies. She knew what was supposed to happen, but she wasn’t sure how she’d react to having a man on top of her. For the first three years after the attack, she’d woken up in a panic when she got tangled in the sheets and couldn’t get out.

Every time she got close to a man and even considered getting intimate, she’d panicked. Her heart raced and she broke out in a cold sweat. Except last night.

Yes, she’d pushed Decker away, but not because she was in a panic, but because she was anticipating it and didn’t want Decker to realize she was a freak. When the usual anxiety attack didn’t happen, it was too late. The moment had been lost.

“What about Decker?” Frank asked, breaking into Roxi’s thoughts.

“What about him?” she asked, heat stealing into her cheeks.

“What’s his story?”

“Like I said, I don’t know much about him.”
Just that his wife is dead and he kisses like a dream.

“I didn’t know much about your mother when I fell in love with her. The same day we met, I knew.”

Roxi faced Frank, crossing her arms over her chest. “Did you ever tell her that you loved her?”

The older man’s shoulder lifted, but he refused to meet her gaze. “She made it pretty clear it was your father she preferred.”

“What about after my father died and you brought us here to live?” Roxi asked. “Did you tell her then?”

“Angela had enough on her mind helping you deal with what happened and making a new life for the two of you. Then the cancer set in.”

“You never told her.” Roxi’s arms fell to her sides and her chest hurt for the man who’d loved Angela Lanier and done everything to help her when her world fell apart. He’d been there when her mom had been diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and sat at her bedside while she’d slowly slipped away. “She must have known. No man would have done that much for her if he didn’t love her.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Frank nodded toward the window. “What matters is that you give yourself a chance to find love. Speaking of chances, Decker just left.”

Roxi leaned over to look through the window into the bar. Decker’s seat was empty. Otis padded into the kitchen and looked up at her.

“Did he leave you?” she asked and bent to pat the dog’s head.

“That’s all the supplies. I’ll cover the bar if you want to take a break,” Frank offered.

Roxi fought the desire to run out the door after Decker. She didn’t want to appear too anxious to see him again. All she’d agreed to was a walk with Decker and Otis at three o’clock.

She glanced at the clock on the wall. She had fifteen minutes.

Her heart fluttered and she glanced down at the old jeans and T-shirt she’d thrown on that morning when she’d been too sleepy to think straight.

“If you’re sure…” she said, turning toward the exit, even as she spoke.

Frank chuckled. “Go”

Roxi walked out the back door. As soon as it shut behind her, she raced up the stairs and into her apartment above. She stripped out of the jeans and T-shirt, ran a brush through the knots in her hair and pulled it back in a messy bun that wouldn’t last two minutes in the salty breeze. Then she stood in front of her closet, biting her lip.

Did she wear shorts? No, the wind had a bite to it today, though she knew her legs were one of her best features. She could wear the shorts and a long-sleeved, loose shirt. Then she spied the powder blue sundress she’d worn to a friend’s wedding on the beach. With five minutes to get to the agreed upon location, she didn’t have time to waste. She slipped the dress over her head and let it slide down over her body, the fabric loose and light. The matching cardigan would cover her arms and keep her from getting too cold. One last glance in the mirror and she hurried down the stairs, barefoot. Walking on the beach was best done without shoes. Otis followed behind her and bounded ahead, kicking up sand as he raced toward the pier.

Her heart thudding against her ribs, Roxi found herself skipping along after Otis. When she realized she was practically running, she slowed to a sedate walk, reining in the rising excitement. Where was he? All she could make out ahead was the tall, spindly poles of the pier and Otis barreling toward them.

Then movement on the sand before the pier made her heart stutter. Otis was attacking the figure, and seemed to have him pinned to the ground.

Roxi ran toward them, her heart caught in her throat, her muscles and lungs burning. Her dog had been professionally trained to protect her. She’d seen him at the training center where she and Frank purchased him, viciously attacking upon command. “Otis! Down, boy!”

As she neared the dog and the man, she realized they were wrestling in the sand. Otis alternated between pretending to tear at Decker’s arm and licking the man’s face, his tail wagging like a puppy with a new friend.

Roxi stopped running and bent over, sucking air into her lungs. “Damn dog,” she muttered when she could breathe again.

Decker rolled to his feet and brushed sand from his shirt, hair and shorts. “I think Otis and I have bonded.”

Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Some guard dog he turned out to be.”

“I’m sure he’d be perfectly ferocious if he felt you were threatened.” As if to prove Decker wrong, Otis rolled over in the sand for Decker to rub his belly.

“Yeah, ferocious.” Roxi clicked her tongue. “Come on Rambo, let’s go for that walk.”

“Otis.” Decker winked. “His name is Otis.”

The dog rolled to his feet and shook sand all over them, before running beneath the pier and out the other side.

Roxi and Decker fell in step, walking in silence. They passed beneath the shadowy pier and back out into the sunshine.

Just two normal people having a friendly walk along the beach, Roxi tried to tell herself. She was emotionally scarred from being raped, and he still grieved for his dead wife. What did it hurt to live in an imaginary
normal
world, if only for a short time? It wasn’t as if they were going to fall in bed and make mad passionate love in the middle of the day.

Well, damn. No sooner had the idea presented itself, then she imagined him stretched out on the sand, naked and waiting for her to straddle his big body.

“Why here?” she asked, curious about the man, and desperately trying to focus on anything but the way his broad shoulders filled out the T-shirt he wore.

“Pardon?” He shot a glance her way.

“Why did you decide to stay here?”

He walked along several more steps and bent to collect a shell from the wet sand. “I guess I was ready for a change.” He straightened and handed her the perfectly formed shell with a spiral curve extending to a point, the inside a shiny, soft peachy-pink mother of pearl. “And you don’t find sea shells on the sidewalks of a city.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and continued walking. “What about you? Why here?”

She smoothed the sand off the shell and ran her finger over the slick surface, loving the smooth beauty of nature’s work of art. “I’ve been here for the past fourteen years.”

“So? You could have moved.”

She swept her hands out and turned around. “Why would I leave all this?”

“Opportunity, a chance to see the rest of the world, view life outside a vacation town, avoid the cape winters.”

She stiffened. “I love the snow, and I have everything I need here.”

“Everything?” he questioned. “You’ve never wanted to visit other places?”

Roxi shook her head. “I can look them up on the internet.”

“Some people would say you’re hiding from the world.”

Roxi stopped walking. “What is this, an inquisition?”

Decker took her hands in his. “No. I’m sorry. I’m just trying to understand you.”

“I like it here.” She pulled her hands from his. “It’s the only place I’ve ever felt….” Dragging in a deep breath, she turned back the way they’d come. “It doesn’t matter.”

Decker stepped around and stood in front of her, blocking her path. He lifted her chin with one of his fingers and stared into her eyes, refusing to let her look away. “The only place you’ve ever felt
what
, Roxi?”

She turned her face toward the water, jerking away from his hand, her emotions intense, naked and raw. “It’s the only place I’ve ever felt
safe
.”

Chapter Five

D
ECKER’S HEART CLENCHED at the rawness of Roxi’s voice, of the shadows darkening her pale blue eyes. “I’m sorry.” He brushed the back of his knuckles across her cheek, wanting to pull her into his arms and hold her, to chase away whatever demons plagued her. Deep inside, he knew holding her would only make things worse.

His digging had opened a wound she apparently hadn’t wanted exposed.

Otis returned to them and sat at Roxi’s feet, nuzzling her hand at her side.

She stroked his head and stared down at the dog, her eyes filled, but no tears fell.

“Forget I asked.” Decker stroked his fingers down her arm and lifted her hand, careful not to hold too tight. He brought her fingers to his lips and brushed a feather-soft kiss to the backs of her knuckles. “Please. Let’s walk. I promise to keep my mouth shut.”

He tugged her hand gently, and turned to resume their walk down the beach. He angled toward the surf, his bare feet padding through the damp sand.

“You’re right,” Roxi said softly. “I have been hiding from the world.”

Decker didn’t respond, just glanced her way, giving her all the leeway to share whatever she wanted, or nothing at all.

“Since I came here, the cape has been my sanctuary. I almost feel that if I leave, I’ll disappear or this place will disappear and I won’t be able to get back.”

“How long has it been since you left the cape area?”

She shrugged and kept walking. “I leave every once in a while for supplies or to visit friends, but I can’t wait to get back.”

“Why do you dislike the outside world so much?”

For a long moment, Roxi remained silent and then she said, “It doesn’t matter. I never want to leave here.”

The beautiful, seemingly self-assured owner of the Dream Spinner Bar and Grill was afraid to leave the cape.

Why?

Decker didn’t press the issue. He wasn’t even sure why he’d asked her out for a walk on the beach. He slowed to a stop and stared out at the water, churning in the afternoon sun. “I like the way the water is always in motion. I can watch it for hours.” As if to emphasize his statement, he dropped to sit on the dry sand.

Roxi hesitated then sat beside him, pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. “The waves are already getting bigger. The weatherman predicted we might get hit by the tropical storm headed up the coast.”

Decker nodded. “The chances of it getting close enough to cause damage are pretty slim.”

She stared out at the choppy water. “If you’re worried, the state will call for evacuation before it hits.”

“I’m not too worried. But what about you? Have you ever evacuated?” Decker asked.

Roxi nodded. “Frank, my mother and I have only evacuated two times over the past fourteen years. The coastline was hit several times in the same season. We had plenty of warning. Enough time to board up the bar and pack the important stuff into our cars before we joined the line of cars heading inland.”

“Does your mother live around here now?” he asked.

Roxi didn’t answer for a long moment. “My mother died of cancer three years ago.”

Decker drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry for your loss.” So she had something in common with him. She’d lost someone she loved. Not that he wished that kind of loss on anyone, but he could feel the connection between them even more.

Otis ran back and dropped onto the sand beside Decker, panting loudly.

“I love to sit on the beach and stare out at the cape and all its personalities,” Roxi said.

Decker faced the water. “Personalities?”

“You know. Sunrise when everything is fresh from the night and the water is like glass, she’s like a teenager on the verge of adulthood.”

A smile tugged at his mouth. “That’s one way to look at it.”

An answering smile quirked at the corners of her lips. “And when the sun is bearing down, hot and relentless, she’s a lounging lioness, basking in the rays, fat from feasting and lord of her domain.”

“What about now?” Decker turned to watch the expressions play across Roxi’s eyes.

Wind whipped her hair around her face and Roxi raised her hand to push it back, exposing a hint of a lacy white bra and the tantalizing swell of her breast beneath her powder-blue dress. With her legs drawn up, her bare calves flexed, the muscles taut and shapely. Though the dress covered her thighs, ass and body, it was sheer enough to give Decker a hint of what lay beneath the soft fabric.

Flame shot straight to Decker’s groin and he fought to control himself and keep from sprouting a tent in his shorts.

Her gaze went to the sea. Roxi went on, unaware of the picture she presented or of the reaction Decker’s body gave in response. “Right now, she’s on the verge of discovery, tempted by change and tempting in her tempestuousness.”

Decker chuckled. “That’s an old-fashioned word.”

“But it fits her.” She faced him. “Don’t you see it?” Her gaze was as intense as the constant churning of the cape and just as beautiful.

“I see it,” he said, wanting more than anything to reach out, cup her face and kiss those full sensuous lips. “You’re amazing.”

Roxi laughed, her cheeks blooming with color. “You probably think I’m a flake.”

“No. I think you see things differently.” He hurried to add, “In a good way.”

She sighed. “Even when the seas are rough, I find comfort in them.”

“Why don’t you feel safe outside of Cape Cod?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Decker wished he could take them back.

Her back stiffened and the light faded from her eyes. “I just don’t.” Roxi glanced at the watch on Decker’s wrist. “What time is it?”

“A quarter to five.”

“Shoot.” She scrambled to her feet, brushing sand from her backside. “I have to get back and help Frank manage the dinner crowd.”

Decker rose to stand beside her and reached for her hand, holding it lightly in his own. “I’m glad you came for a walk with me. I haven’t walked on a beach with a woman for a very long time.”

Her gaze locked with his. “Since your wife died?”

He nodded.

Roxi’s brows puckered. “You must have loved her a great deal.”

“I did.” His glance dropped to where their hands touched. “But I have to get on with my life.”

Roxi lifted her other hand to cup his face, stepping close enough Decker could smell the fragrant scent of her hair. “Yes, you do. You have a lot to offer some lucky woman.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “I have too much baggage.”

“Not, really. You’re not bad to look at, and you seem nice. Or at least you’ve been nice to me.”

“It’s easy to be nice to you.”

Roxi leaned closer and pecked him on the cheek, her lips brushing lightly, barely a whisper across his skin.

Before she could back away, he turned his face and swept his lips across hers, his free hand cupping the back of her neck, applying a slight pressure to bring her closer.

Her body grew rigid, then relaxed, melting against him, her hand rising to rest against his chest, her touch burning a path straight through to his heart.

Then she turned and ran, Otis racing after her, barking.

Decker stood rooted in the sand until Roxi and Otis disappeared beneath the shadowy pier.

That kiss had cost him. No longer could he cling to the memory of Allison and wallow in the self-inflicted guilt that had kept him celibate for the past two years. He couldn’t continue to bury himself in solitude, not when the troubled gaze of a beautiful bar owner and the tingling sensation of her kiss lingered on his mind and lips.

BY THE TIME Roxi arrived at the bar, she was panting and her heart raced, not only from the sprint, but also from the realization that she’d kissed a man for the second time, and hadn’t felt smothered or forced in any way. Which left her feeling baffled, anxious and twitchy. If it felt so good, why had she run?

The freedom of that kiss and the way her body begged for more, was so foreign to her that it had both frightened and excited her at once. Instead of entering through the front door of the bar, she rounded the building and stood outside the back entrance, pressing her palms to her heated cheeks.

Wow.
In her head, she repeated that one word.
Wow
.

She was torn between getting back to her normal life and running all the way back down the beach and into Decker’s arms for more of the magic that lifted her long-running trepidation over intimacy. Not only did she like the kiss, it inspired a desire that swept over her, making her want so much more. And they’d kissed in broad daylight…on a public beach. She could imagine how much more sensuous a kiss in the moonlight might be and wanted to test the theory.

Roxi stood at the bottom of the staircase leading up to her little apartment, frozen in thought. Would kissing Decker in the darkness remind her too much of when she’d been attacked?

Roxi shook her head.
No
. She’d been with him in the moonlight the night before and hadn’t felt the least bit threatened. Granted, they’d just survived a wicked riptide and neither one of them had the energy to do anything else besides breathe and let their muscles rest from the strain of swimming to shore.

Hell, she was over thinking everything about the man. With a business to run, she couldn’t stand around daydreaming about the hot guy on the beach. She led Otis up the stairs, gave him fresh water and a bowl of his favorite dog food. Knowing she had a bar to run, she slipped out of the blue dress and into her cutoffs and tank top. With a sigh, she headed down to the kitchen entrance. As she reached for the doorknob, the back door opened, almost hitting her in the face.

“Oh, there you are.” Frank carried a bag of trash. “Four customers just walked in, and Marcy is still sick, leaving only you and me to cover the bar.”

“Oh, dear. I hope she’ll be okay.” Ducking her head, Roxi squeezed past Frank. “I’d better go see what they want.”

Frank’s free hand shot out and captured Roxi’s arm. “Are you okay?”

Roxi gave him a round-eyed, innocent look. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?” Other than she’d had an amazing kiss and her heart wouldn’t slow down, she was perfectly fine. Better than fine.

“Your cheeks are kind of red.” He pressed the back of his hand to her forehead. “You’re not catching what Marcy has, are you?”

“No. No. I feel fine.” Amazing. Alive. Perhaps for the first time since she was thirteen.

“Well, take it easy tonight, just in case.”

“Mondays are usually slow at the end of the summer season. No worries.” She entered the Dream Spinner and hurried to wash her hands and grab an order pad and pen before going to work. The next couple of hours passed like molasses in the winter. When she glanced at the clock on the wall, it seemed as though the hands hadn’t budged. Every time the door opened, she looked up, her pulse increasing with the hope in the back of her mind that it might be Decker in his shorts and polo shirt, his dark hair mussed from the wind, a smile on his lips.

Each time disappointment slowed her heart rate when it wasn’t Decker. She pasted a smile on her lips and waited on the customers eager for a meal and libations to enhance their cape experience.

Food and drink weren’t what had enhanced Roxi’s cape life. One tall, dark and incredibly handsome widower had done the trick and she could hardly wait until he showed up at the bar.

Eventually, Roxi got too busy filling orders and cleaning tables to check the door every five minutes. As one hour passed into the next, the crowd of dinner guests thinned to the people there to watch the Monday night football game on the four televisions mounted in the corners.

Roxi had just returned from taking a tub of dirty dishes to the kitchen when she spotted Decker taking a seat at the bar.

Her heart skipped several beats, and she fought the urge to check her hair. She smoothed her hands over her denim cutoffs and slipped behind the bar, pasting a subdued smile on her face when she wanted to grin like an idiot. Inside, she could be as giddy as a teenager with a crush. On the outside, she didn’t want to appear too eager. Hell, she hadn’t done a lot of dating, and what did she know about what men liked or didn’t like?

Awkward and suddenly insecure, her hands shook. She grabbed a rag and wiped it across the counter to where he sat. “Hi.”

“Hey.”

The dead air stretched between them until Roxi found her tongue. “What can I get you?” She held up her hand. “Let me guess—scotch on the rocks?”

He nodded, a real smile tilting his lips upward. “Thanks.”

She bent to grab the bottle of scotch from beneath the counter, dropped ice into a tumbler and poured. “Have you eaten? Do you want a menu?” Grabbing the rag, she wiped the counter again, trying to keep busy so that he didn’t notice how nervous she was.

“I had a sandwich at my place.” He reached out and placed his hand over hers. “Roxi, I didn’t come for dinner. I wanted to know if you were walking Otis after work tonight and, assuming you were, if you’d mind company.”

Her stomach erupted in a flock of butterflies all fluttering at once. “Um. Yes. I usually walk Otis before I call it a night.” Her cheeks flooded with heat and, low in her core, her insides tightened. “And yes, I would like company.”

BOOK: Love on the Rocks
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