After dropping out of pastry school and messing up her big break on a reality cooking show, Leah Sullivan needs to accomplish something in her life. But when she returns home to Lucky Harbor, she finds herself distracted by her best friend, Jack Harper. In an effort to cheer up Jack’s ailing mother, Dee, Leah tells a little fib – that she and Jack are more than just friends. Soon pretending to be hot-and-heavy with this hunky firefighter feels too real to handle . . .
No-strings attachments suit Jack just fine – perfect for keeping the risk of heartbreak away. But as Jack and Leah break every one of their “just friends” rules, he longs to turn their pretend relationship into something permanent. Do best friends know too much about each other to risk falling in love? Or will Jack and Leah discover something new about each other in a little town called Lucky Harbor?
It wasn’t all that difficult to find Leah, once Jack set his mind to it. Since the beginning of time, when she’d been troubled, she’d been drawn to two things.
And the ocean.
She hadn’t come to him. That was new. There’d been a time when she’d have come to him no matter what was troubling her.
Except, of course, at the moment he was the source of her trouble, even though it was of her own making. The last time that had been the case, she’d left Lucky Harbor.
But he knew she couldn’t leave now. She was here for her grandma, and though Leah had plenty of faults, her grandma meant too much to her. Unlike himself… He tried not to resent that, but there was no getting around the fact – he did resent it. He was pissed off that she had no idea what she meant to him, back then.
His heart squeezed a little, making room for a few other emotions besides his temper. Empathy. Maybe even reluctant affection. He could’ve gotten into the water with her, but it was after midnight and Christ, he was tired.
Nothing good ever happens after midnight.
His mom had always said so, and in this case, he was willing to bet it was true. So he sat on the sand, positioned halfway between her car and the water, giving her no easy escape. And waited.
And brooded. Because he was having lots of odd and unexpected urges as it pertained to Leah, and he didn’t know what to do about them. Once upon a time, she’d been the only highlight in his day, the only one to make him smile. She was still that person, but there was something new between them, and he wasn’t sure if it was good. In fact, he was pretty sure he should be running like hell.
Finally, she swam in, and then she was standing up in the water, and he nearly swallowed his tongue. It’d been a damn long time since he’d seen her in a bathing suit. Maybe since high school, when she’d been a head taller than all the other girls and skinny as hell.
She was still tall but she’d filled out in all the right places and then some. She wore a black bikini, nothing but a few straps low on her hips and two triangles over her breasts, and as a wave knocked her around a little, everything jiggled enticingly.
And suddenly he went from slightly chilled to very overheated. Good Christ, she was … beautiful. It should’ve assuaged his simmering temper just looking at her, but instead it stoked it, making him tense as hell.
Leah, on the other hand, was looking pretty carefree as she lifted her arms and shoved back her hair.
At the sight, his brain utterly clicked off.
She saw him then. He could tell because, from one blink of an eye to the next, she froze every single muscle. It’d have been fascinating to watch, except for the fact that she was freezing up over him. She’d never reacted this way before. He didn’t like it. And besides, he was the wronged party here. He was the one who got to be pissy.
“You’re still here,” she said flatly. “You scared me.”
“You need to be more aware of your surroundings.”
Dripping water everywhere, she crossed her arms over herself. “It’s Lucky Harbor.”
He rose to his feet. “Bad shit can happen anywhere.”
She met his gaze for one brief beat and then looked away. “What are you doing here, Jack?”
“I figured as your ‘almost fiancé,’ I should see how you’re doing.”
She winced but didn’t respond.
“What the hell is this all about, Leah?”
“You know it’s about your mom’s cancer,” she said, hugging herself a little tighter.
She always got defensive when she screwed up, and since she’d screwed up a lot, she had a lot of practice.
“My mom has enough going on,” he said. “She doesn’t need to be lied to.”
“Maybe not. But she does need to be happy to heal. And this made her happy. All week she’s been glowing.”
He knew it was true, and a stab of guilt hit him that he hadn’t been able to make her happy without help.
Leah didn’t say anything more but she didn’t have to. Yeah, she’d gotten them into this mess, but he knew damn well it’d been out of the goodness of her heart. Jack knew that she thought she owed him for all those years ago, when he’d done his best to protect her, the chivalry having been deeply ingrained by his dad.
But they were even.
In the dark, Leah shivered, and that chivalry had him torn between enjoying the sight of her cold and wanting to wrap her up in his arms. “Where’s your towel?”
“In the car.”
He pulled off his sweatshirt and tugged it over her head.
“I’ll get it wet,” she said.
“Just wear the damn sweatshirt, Leah.”
There was an awkward silence while they stared at each other as behind her the water pounded the shore.
“I realize that this is really hard for you,” she finally said, pulling on his sweatshirt. “Having everyone think you like me that way. You’ll just have to pretend.”
He narrowed his eyes. Had that been sarcasm? Or…
Hurt? “There was a time when I wouldn’t have had to pretend anything,” he said. “But you flaked out, remember? You pretended, and then you left.”
She grimaced, swallowed hard, and looked away. “We were just kids.”
Was that how it played in her head? Seriously? “Does it make you feel better?” he asked quietly. “To downplay what we were to each other?”
She closed her eyes. “We were friends, Jack. Friends who’d made a quick, knee-jerk, stupid decision to become naked friends and sleep together.”
“Yeah. And then one of the friends didn’t show,” he said, much more mildly than he felt.
“It was a bad idea. I was leaving.”
“Which you forgot to mention.”
She dropped her head back and stared up at the sky. “I couldn’t stay, Jack.”
He took in her expression, filled with memories, and nodded. “I know. But you should have told me you were going.”
“You had another girl in your bed by the following weekend.”
Had he? Hell, probably. But she wouldn’t have meant anything to him. Not like Leah had. His chest tightened at the memory of the hole she’d left in his life. He didn’t want to go through that again. “I missed you.”
She said nothing, and he shook his head. Fuck it. He started to walk away, and then she spoke.
He stopped. “What?”
“Brandi Metcalf was the one in your bed by the next weekend.” She turned her head and glared at him. “Pretty blonde Brandi with the perfect boobs.” She emphasized this by cupping her hands out in front of her own breasts. “So don’t even try to tell me you missed me.”
He shook his head. Apparently he wasn’t the only pissed-off one tonight. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s have it.”
“Let’s have what?”
“Well, I know why I’m pissed. Why the hell are you pissed?”
“It’s not like it’s going to be a walk in the park for me either,” she said, giving him a little shot to the chest. “Pretending to like you.”
“Me?” he asked, flabbergasted. “What the hell is there not to like about me?”
The sound she made assured him that she had volumes on the subject. “Don’t get me started.”
“I want to know,” he said.
“Fine. You watch that stupid ice fishing show like it’s a religion, you’re a horrible backseat driver, you drink out of the milk carton – and fyi, so does Ben – you don’t put the cap on your toothpaste, or put the lid down on the toilet, and you shush me when you’re watching sports.”
He stared at her. “That’s quite a list of shortcomings,” he eventually said. “Is that all?”
“No.” She shoved her wet hair from her face, though she managed to keep her regal stance, nose firmly in the air at nose-bleed heights. “I held back because I didn’t want to be overly rude.”
He laughed softly. “Don’t hold back, Leah. Let’s hear all of it.”
“Well, your truck has more sporting goods than a store, you never say you’re sorry, and your girlfriends look like super models. I mean what is that? There’s nothing wrong with real boobs, you know!”
He took it all in and had to admit that he couldn’t say she was wrong, about any of it. “And yet you call me The Picker.”
She ignored this. “And your mom told me that you need knee surgery again. You’re just too stubborn to get it done. So you can add ornery to the list.”
He blew out a slow breath. “It’s not ice fishing,” he said. “It’s crabbing. And sometimes I lose the cap on the toothpaste, or my dog eats it. And I don’t need knee surgery, I’m fine.”
Leah snorted. “You’re always ‘fine’. Your knee could be falling off and you’d say you were fine.”
“I fail to see the problem.”
She snorted again, and he was starting to feel greatly insulted. “You’re not exactly a walk in the park, Leah.”
“No. You’re flighty, you live for your every whim, you downplay any real emotion you feel.”
She hugged herself tight. “Good thing this is all pretend then, isn’t it,” she said softly.
She was freezing. And hauntingly gorgeous, so damn gorgeous standing there wet and silvery by the moon’s glow, like a goddess. It’s Leah, he had to keep reminding himself. Leah, who’d once beaten him in a marshmallow eating contest only to puke all over him. Leah, whose dark green eyes had a way of telling the world to bite her. Leah, who’d run off on him and left him heartbroken. He took a step into her – for what exactly, he had no idea– and she poked a finger into his chest.
“God,” she said. “You’re so …” Words apparently failed her, but she let out a sound that managed to perfectly convey how annoying he was.
“Ditto,” he said, and then grabbed the finger drilling a hole between his pecs and tugged her hard enough that she lost her balance and fell against him.
He wrapped an arm around her waist, entangling a hand in her wet hair.
She went still as stone and stared into his eyes. And then lowered her gaze to his mouth.
Yeah, they were in sync there. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe. Hers caught audibly in her throat, a good sign he decided. Maybe she wouldn’t knee him in the balls. Testing the waters, he grazed her jawline with his teeth.
Then he slid his mouth to the very corner of hers and was rewarded by the clutch of her hands on his shirt. Having her hold on to him like this, like he was her only anchor, sent a bolt of lust straight through him. “Leah,” he murmured, hearing the surprise in his own voice, feeling the heat course through him as he finally, God finally, covered her mouth with his.
Her lips parted for him eagerly, and he groaned, drowning in the erotic collision of her hot tongue and chilled, wet body.
Serious trouble. He was in serious trouble.
Because he had a taste of her now, a damn good taste, and it was better than he could have imagined, making him want the rest of her. With his fingers still in her hair, he pulled her in tighter, slanting his mouth across hers for more. She moved with him, into him, making the connection all the sweeter.
No. Sweet wasn’t the right word.
Hot. She was so hot she was turning him inside out. And then she made another of those soft, surrendering sighs deep in her throat, the sound slaying him. She still had a death grip on his shirt and had managed to catch a few chest hairs while she was at it. He didn’t care. Sliding a hand beneath his sweatshirt, he cupped her ass over her wet bikini bottoms, rocking into her.
She had to feel what this was doing to him. And given that she was breathing like she was running out of air, and still holding onto him tight enough to bruise, she also had to know where this was going.
Jack kissed Leah some more, sinking deeper into her taste, her softness, her scent, all while wondering how the hell she could drive him crazy and made him ache at the same time. It was a feat that totally wrecked his equilibrium. Maybe it was just the kiss. Because holy shit, the kiss. He still had a handful of her sweet ass, and he squeezed, wanting more. But they were outside and the night’s temp was quickly dropping. She was wet, trembling with the chill, and there was absolutely nowhere to go with this. Not here, not now. He’d had no business kissing her like he had an end game, and knowing it, he regretfully pulled back.
She blinked as if waking up from a dream. “What—” She cleared her throat. “What was that?”
“Insanity. It’s going around.”