“Donovan? Can I talk to you for a sec?”
I’m just about to leave the courthouse for the day when a familiar voice forces me to stop. I have two hours before my date with Zara, which should give me plenty of time to check on Pops and get ready. I popped into the Wheelhouse for coffee this morning. We didn’t get to talk much, but more sparks danced between us than on 4th Fest in State College.
“Tony Caputo, how the hell are you?”
My father’s old friend emerges from a stream of people on the courthouse steps. In Bridgewater, high school friends are sometimes friends for life, and Dad and Tony have stayed close through the years.
“Good.” He gives my hand a hearty shake. “How’s Papa Donovan?”
We move to the street, away from the others.
“He’ll be okay, thanks for asking. How’s the family?”
Both of Tony’s kids moved away from Bridgewater, so I haven’t seen either in years.
“Marc is on the move again, just settled in Arizona for a job. And Kara just had her first baby.” His smile is as big as they get. “I’m a grandpa, Cole. To a little girl.”
“Congratulations. Must be hard with her in . . . is it South Carolina?”
He blinks then, just a bit too quickly. I’ve learned to read body language over the years, and my instincts suggest this exchange isn’t random. He came here specifically to talk with me, and it has something to do with his new granddaughter.
“Everything okay with the baby?”
Placing his hand on my arm, Tony ushers me further away from the courthouse steps.
“She’s great. Which is exactly what I want to talk to you about. Any chance you’re free for a drink?”
My heart slams against my chest with the reminder that I’ll be on a date with Zara in two hours. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since the second I laid eyes on her, and can’t remember the last time I was this revved up for a first date.
Or any date, for that matter.
“Can’t tonight.” I’m usually pretty private, but inexplicably I blurt out, “I have a date.”
“Ah, who’s the lucky girl?”
I realize I want to share, I want to say her name. “Zara Phillips.”
Tony scrunches his face, thinking. “Ah, Dede Phillips’s granddaughter?”
“Brilliant woman, from what I hear.”
“Did you know her grandmother?”
A warm, pleasant breeze rushes through the leaves of the tree next to us, as mild and unhurried as the pace of the people leaving the courthouse for the day. In Philly, the crowd of people attempting to escape for the weekend would run you down at this time of day. But not here. Not in Bridgewater.
“I did. Pretty well, actually. She was a client years ago, back when she ran that newspaper. Did you ever see her son’s work? He’s a world-renowned photographer, and his wife too. Quite a family.”
Quite a family, indeed.
“No, but I’ll have to look him up.”
Tony smiles. “Especially if you’re dating Zara.”
“It’s a first date,” I clarify.
“You never know,” he says, turning serious again. “Maybe this will work out perfectly for you.”
Tony braces himself, which is how I know something big is coming, and I have a pretty good idea of why he’s here. When I was in law school, he and my dad used to scheme about my joining his practice. That was before I shot to the top of my class and job offers started rolling in.
“I’d rather do this over a drink, but . . . I finally made it to your trial today. It’s been a crazy few weeks.”
“You were there?”
“Yeah, for an hour or so this morning.” He tilts his head, studying me. “Just checking on the guy who I’m hoping will take over my practice when I retire this winter and move down to South Carolina to be closer to my daughter and the baby.”
I knew it. Well, I sort of knew it. I didn’t expect he’d ask me to take over the whole practice.
“Tony.” I shake my head. “I’m making partner.”
This isn’t the first time Tony’s asked me to join him, but it is the first time he’s mentioned me actually taking over his firm.
“Of course you are,” he says. “You’re damn good at your job. Always have been.” He puts up a hand. “Don’t say no. Just agree to a drink with me while you’re here.”
So he can make his pitch.
“Tony, I’m not moving back to Bridgewater.”
Friend Tony becomes lawyer Tony. “I didn’t ask you to move back to Bridgewater, just to have a drink with me. When are you free?”
I adjust my grip on the briefcase.
“How about next Thursday? The Coop still has their wings and clams special.”
The last time I was asked to dinner by a colleague was the week before I came home. A partner in a rival firm tried to impress me with reservations at the swankiest restaurant in Center City. Polar opposite of the Coop.
“Seriously? Is it still $5.99 for a dozen wings and fifty clams?”
Unbelievable. I don’t know how they stay in business.
“How’s Wednesday? I’ve got basketball with Atwood on Thursday.”
“Right back in the groove, eh?” He smiles at that, like he thinks he has me on the hook. “Wednesday it is. Seven o’clock?”
“Sounds good. Though I’m warning you, old man,” I say, using my dad’s nickname for him. The poor guy is only one day older than my father, but they never met a joke they didn’t like. “You’re wasting good money.”
He shrugs. “Clams and wings with an old friend, never a waste. Besides—” He moves to walk away. “It’s only six bucks, Donovan. You’re worth at least that much.”
“Thanks,” I laugh, waving as he leaves. “Appreciate the compliment.”
I watch as Tony moves away, shaking hands with an older woman in a black suit. I don’t recognize her. He, of course, must know every person in this courthouse, having practiced just down the street his whole life.
But at the moment, I have bigger fish to fry than letting down an old friend of my father’s. I have a date to get ready for, and a few final touches to add to my plans for the evening.
I hope Zara likes surprises.
“Sorry but I have to head off soon,” I tell my mom just as she sets down her phone, making the screen go black.
“Hold on one sec,” she says. “There’s someone at the door.”
I still have to put on makeup, and Cole will be here in less than twenty minutes. So I take the phone with me and sit at the vanity that was once my grandmother’s. I haven’t had the heart to change much yet, even though the whole house needs an overhaul.
Falling into my routine, I take out the concealer, so caught up in what I’m doing that I don’t even notice my mother is back.
“You don’t need that.”
Groaning inwardly, I peek at Mom. Some say we look so alike we could be twins, but my mother has a quarter of my freckles. If I age half as good as her, I’ll be giddy.
“I know, I know.”
This is precisely why I wanted to get off the phone before I finished getting ready. Lecture in four, three, two, one . . .
“You are beautiful, Zar, just as you are. Remember what that fashion editor told you in France?”
As if I could forget it. I was in Paris on a shoot with my mom when the editor of the magazine she was shooting for told me bluntly that I should scrub my face. I’m not sure how she knew exactly what was underneath, but she proceeded to lecture me about the French notion of natural beauty and embracing your individuality.
Easy for a woman with flawless skin to spout off about that.
“I really have to go, Mom,” I tell her. “He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”
I told her all about Cole already, and eluded her inquiries about the NatGeo article. Despite what I said to Cole, the whole thing is still crap. I couldn’t figure out a good angle, so I tabled it to work on another article. If I don’t think of something workable by the end of the week, I’m going to have to settle with us leaving Bridgewater to travel the world.
“Dad says hello,” she says. “Make sure to let me know how it goes.”
“I will.” I give my attention to the screen. “Good luck tomorrow.”
She’ll be shooting a portrait, her favorite type of photography. Mom likes to work in light and shadows, tending to underexpose, giving her photos their signature somber feel.
I click off the video and hurry to finish. Three minutes. And I still have no idea where we’re going. Cole told me to keep it casual, so I figured a tiered sundress was a safe bet, although now I wonder if it’s too dressy? And maybe too low-cut? I love this tiered minidress, but I think maybe I should switch to tan flats.
When the doorbell rings, I hurry to change my shoes and scramble downstairs, trying like crazy to act chill. Humming all the way to the door, I pause, brace myself, and then open it.
He’s holding a beautiful bouquet of roses. Flowers on a first date. Either I really, really misjudged this guy, or he is exactly the disingenuous charmer I thought he was on day one. He extends his arm, handing the roses to me. I’m about to reach for them when I actually get a good look at him.
Gone are the suspenders. Like that night at Number Five, he’s dressed in khaki shorts and a gingham long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He reminds me of a preppy Chris Pine. But he’s standing on my doorstep.
“I’ve never seen roses that shade of pink before. They’re so pretty.”
Taking them, I step aside to let him in.
“Plain old white or red didn’t seem appropriate for you.”
As I bring them into the kitchen, with Cole following, I try to remember where my grandmother might have kept her vases. I know they’re in here somewhere. She loved fresh-cut flowers, and I saw them . . . oh, here we go. I pull one out from under the sink and start filling it with water.
“That was very thoughtful,” I tell him.
“You look beautiful, Zara.”
My heart slams against my chest.
“Uh, I think that might be enough,” he says as the vase begins to overflow. So much for casual.
“Yeah, I think you’re right.”
By the time I get the flowers into the vase, it seems weird to comment on his appearance. Besides, the words running through my head—You’re so fucking hot—wouldn’t really be appropriate.
“You ready? The car is here.”
As we walk back to the door, I get a whiff of him. Holy hell. He smells as good as he looks. Then again, he always does.
“We’ll be drinking, so no driving.”
Sure enough, there is a car parked right out front. He opens the door, ever the gentleman, and I climb in as gracefully as possible. When I lean forward to see the driver’s phone map, curious about our destination, Cole’s hand reaches for me.
The contact, though brief, reminds me how much I like looking at his hands. And jawline. And eyes. And basically everything.
By the time we pull up to what appears to be the middle of nowhere on the east side of Lake Shohola, I’ve totally forgotten to play the guessing game about our destination. Conversation has flowed so naturally between us, and Cole is so genuinely charming . . . I’m not seeing him as some money-grabbing attorney anymore. He’s so much more than that.
“Here?” the driver asks.
I can see why he’s confused. In most places, lakefront real estate is a hot commodity—houses like my grandmother’s, now mine, are interspersed with restaurants, a few wineries, and even a resort. But there’s nothing out here. No houses, not even any lights.
“Yep, thanks,” Cole says as he opens the door and we get out.
It’s still light out at the moment, but it won’t be long before it’s pitch black, and we’re literally in the middle of nowhere.
“Watch your step,” he says as we make our way along a path through the trees heading toward the lake. “It’s mostly cleared, but it hasn’t been kept up all that great.”
“I’ve been hiking with my parents most of my life,” I say from behind him as Cole picks up the pace and tosses aside a few rocks and sticks in front of me.
“Oh yeah? An outdoorsy girl, then?”
“Not really. I’ve slept in exactly one lean-to in my life, and I’m not dying to repeat the experience. Mostly day-hiking stuff.”
“Huh. I’d have thought traveling the world with photographer parents would mean roughing it quite a bit.”
“You only say that because you don’t know my mom very well. She and ‘roughing it’ don’t get along very well, believe it or not. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid. Occupational hazard. But it’s still not her thing.”
Just then, the path to the lake clears, and I gasp.
“What is this place?”
Trees and water surround a wooden gazebo with a table set for two. A long dock, lined with lanterns not yet lit, leads out to a surprisingly smooth lake. I sit on the back deck of my grandmother’s house often, and even at this time of night, the lake is never so calm.
“A friend of mine owns the property. We’re actually on an inlet in here, and he owns the entire thing. It’s worth a fortune. He should’ve built on it or sold it years ago, but his grandparents never wanted to develop it.” He shrugs.
“And this?” I gesture to the gazebo.
“Built by his father. His parents got married here, in this very spot. The dock was built to bring guests in by boat. They rent it out for wedding pictures now. Pretty spot, isn’t it?”
Pretty doesn’t do it justice. Otherworldly, maybe?
“My friend got married here too, last summer. That’s how I knew about it.”
I walk toward the gazebo and take in the interior—the table with two chairs. A wooden tray, covered with a glass dome, holds what looks like all kinds of meats and cheeses. A charcuterie board. A large ice bucket stands next to the table, filled with bottles.
Cole laughs. “I was hoping you’d like it.”
“I love it.”
Adding thoughtful to the ever-increasing list of his attributes, I’m struggling to remember why I stayed away from him for so long.
Stepping up to the platform, he pulls out a chair. More lanterns are scattered around the table.
“Who did all of this?”
“Me, kind of.”
He sits across from me as my mouth drops open.
“Well, I may have hired someone to help. And the wine and food were delivered just before we got here. A little favor from a friend. Red or white?”
“Same friend who owns the property? Red please.”
He uncorks a Pinot Noir, my favorite.
“No, Tristano DeLuca provided the food. You probably know his dad owns the family pizza shop, but Tris is the chef of the family. Anything food related . . . he’s your guy.”
I’m in awe.
Cole pours us two glasses of wine as I take it all in. The lake and the lanterns. The woods around us. Him.
What a view. And the lake is really pretty too.
“You went to a lot of trouble.”
Reaching over, he hands me the glass.
“Getting you to talk to me? Yeah, it wasn’t easy. I nearly gave up.” He smirks. “Oh! You mean this—” he waves his hand around, “—I wanted to do something . . . unique.”
I get right to the point. “Why?”
He lifts the dome off the charcuterie board and rolls a piece of salami and cheese together with those deft, clever fingers. Which reminds me that I’m pretty hungry, actually.
“You intrigue me, Miss Phillips.”
I pop an olive into my mouth, and admit, “You intrigue me, Mr. Donovan.”
Picking at the array of goodness in front of us, we talk about everything from our recollections of growing up in Bridgewater to our education and subsequent jobs. I didn’t even realize how dark it had gotten until Cole stands up. Watching as he moves from one lantern to the next, illuminating our table from all sides, I close my eyes and take a deep, slow breath.
This feels a bit like a dream.
One I don’t want to wake up from.
“I have some bad news,” he says, moving toward the steps. “There’s one thing I didn’t think of. When I was here for the wedding, they’d rented outhouses.”
I had been thinking of peeing for a while and wondered about that.
“I’m gonna hit the men’s room”—he points to the trees—“and then light up the dock.”
“No worries.” I’m eager to show Cole my superior adaptability skills. “I got this.”
He pauses for a second and then bounds down the stairs. When he emerges from the trees, using his phone as a flashlight, and heads to the dock, I take the opportunity to make quick work of nature’s call, grab our glasses, and then follow Cole to the end of the now-illuminated walkway.
“Another glass?” I ask, lifting up the wine bottle.
For a second, I think he’s going to say no. Or maybe reach for me. And there is nothing, except maybe getting into Oxford, that I can remember wanting more than for Cole to kiss me.
I hate to admit it, but even when I thought he was a jerk, I pictured this very moment. With fewer lanterns, of course. The spot was beautiful before, but now it’s downright romantic.
He takes a step toward me. And then another step.
Just one more . . .
There is zero reason not to kiss her.
I’ve wanted to do it since the second she opened the door this evening. Actually, way before that. But my grandfather’s ridiculous words of advice before I left ring in my ears.
He got wind of everything I’d done for the date from Tris. It was my fault, really. I made the error of telling Tris that my mom had made a carrot cake—our famous family recipe, which she refuses to pass on to him until he opens his own restaurant—so of course he came over to tell me the food had been delivered, a message he could have easily communicated via texting. Then he proceeded to slice himself a piece of cake and tell my entire family everything.
My mother practically has me married to Zara at this point, and Pops decided it was a good time to rehash his birds and the bees talk. As if the first time wasn’t painful enough.
“When a man really likes a woman . . . ,” he started, but I stopped him there. Still, he managed to get one line off before I walked out the door: “The greatest gift you can give a woman is your respect.”
I find myself thinking about that now, as the urge to kiss Zara rises up. Because I do respect her, and I want her to know it. So instead of grabbing her, I take the bottle and her glass from her.
“Sure,” I say. “Sit over there?” I nod toward the end of the dock.
She’s surprised, but no more than I am. I’m no manwhore, but I’ve never hesitated to kiss a woman in my life. I’ve also never gone to this extreme for a date. I don’t believe in love at first sight. It’s ridiculous, really.
But something about Zara made me overthink this date. It’s making me overthink my every move tonight.
After pouring a second drink for myself, I set the bottle down on the dock. We’re silent for a moment, the sound of crickets louder now than I remember it from previous visits. Or maybe that’s just because my senses are heightened tonight. I can hear the sound of my own heartbeat.
“This is incredible.”
Don’t say it. Don’t be so cheesy.
But the words slip out anyway, because, dammit, I mean them. “You’re incredible, Zara.”
Having tossed her shoes at the foot of the dock, she swings her bare feet off the edge. Framed by moonlight, casual and not casual, she is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.
“You’re embarrassing me,” she teases.
“Just telling the truth. I knew it from the second we met.”
Her laugh, less nervous and more carefree than at the start of the night, fills the air around us.
“Why do you think I kept coming back?”
“Hmm,” she pretends to think. “Maybe because most women fall at your feet, and I was a challenge for you?”
“Ah, so you were playing hard to get?”
“No,” she says with a smirk. “I actually didn’t like you.”
“And . . .” She hesitates. “I don’t think it was your fault. My mom . . .” She swallows. “There were complications when my sister was born. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault in any way but . . . we lost her. And I kept thinking of my parents’ pain, even after so many years. And I just . . .”
She doesn’t continue.
“I understand, Zara. And I’m so sorry.”
We sip wine, quiet for another moment, looking out to the few lights around the lake. And I share something I probably shouldn’t.
“We’re going to win the case,” I say, not out of false confidence, but because I know it’s true. “It never should have gone to trial.”
Zara’s lips part. I can’t hold out much longer. I need to kiss her, to taste her.
“For real. You know, this isn’t about money for me. It’s about clearing Dean’s name.”
I hate to share this next bit, especially since I’m on the fence about my career advancement—never more so than after Zara confessed why she left the job she’d worked so hard to obtain at CFR. It hadn’t felt right, she’d said—the moment she started, it was as if she’d just stepped on a hamster wheel and knew immediately she’d wanted to get off. I get that, and yet . . . partner. It’s something I’ve always wanted.
So I say, “I think there’s a good chance I’ll be made a partner in the firm. It’s a long time coming, and one of the owners basically told me it was a done deal.”
Our eyes hold each other’s, the implications clear. There’s a serious time limit on our relationship. Which would be fine if this were just a normal first date. A night out, fun times. Nothing more or less.
But there’s nothing casual about the interest I have in this woman.
“That must be exciting.” Zara takes a slow, sensual sip of her wine. “I misjudged you, Cole. I’m sorry for that.”
“I’m just glad it didn’t cost us this.” I lift my palm upward as if to engulf the night. The dock. The incredible woman beside me.
And suddenly I can’t wait any longer.
Placing my wine glass on the dock away from us, I inch close enough to be able to reach for her drink. Zara gives it over easily, and I set it down. My heart slams against my chest, the moment I’ve been thinking of for days finally here.
Kissing Zara will be at once the best moment and worst decision of my life. I know it even as I lean toward her, unable to help myself.
The first touch of our lips confirms it. She opens for me, our mouths melding perfectly together. In a tangle of tongues, I give myself to her completely. Because we’re sitting side by side, I can’t embrace her the way I want to—need to—so I break away, pulling her with me to our feet.
In seconds, our arms are wrapped around each other. This kiss is everything, and more. I vowed to take it slow, to respect the boundaries of two people who hardly know each other, like Pops said. But that was before we’d spent hours and hours talking.
I don’t let my own doubts interfere now. Kissing Zara feels too perfect to let anything other than the very real sensation of closeness, of lust, take over. My hands move to her backside as I press her to me, like some kind of caveman, wanting her to feel my desire for her. In response, she moves against me, pushing closer.
The restraint I’ve practiced all night is gone in an instant. As I drink in the sweetness that is Zara Phillips, my hand inches toward the hem of that maddening sundress. Watching her smooth legs kick back and forth on the dock, I wanted so much to do this.
Respect her? I will, by taking her cues, and Zara is anything but hesitant. Her hand covers mine, guiding it up her thigh, as if I need more incentive to explore. This time, as I lay my hand on her backside, there’s nothing between us.
No material to grab.
Nothing but bare skin on bare skin, and I’m sure I’ve never been harder in my life. I should probably stop now, before we take this any further, but, of course, I don’t.
Our lips still joined, I slip a finger under the material of her thong and let it rest there long enough to torment us both. She’s not subtle. I’ve always liked that about Zara, and I like it even more now. Her hips speak louder than any words. So I slide my hand around to the front of her panties, wanting to make her come apart in my hands. Zara makes a sound that encourages me to keep going until I’ve slipped two fingers inside her.
She breaks away with a gasp. A lovely, music-to-my-ears gasp. Her lips still moist from our kiss, her amber eyes lock with mine.
“I so want to keep kissing you,” I say, moving deliberately to build momentum. “But I like watching your face just as much.”
She swallows, hard, just before I begin to circle my thumb and use every damn skill I’ve ever acquired in this moment.
Practice for the real thing.
“Holy shit, Cole.”
When her lips part, I’m almost a goner. I imagine them wrapped around the part of me that’s straining for her . . . and immediately push the thought aside. Tonight is about her, her pleasure.
“I want you to wake up in the morning and think of this.” I circle and thrust in equal measure. “I want your mind to bring you back to this place, this moment, when you watch me walk into the coffee shop on Monday.”
She groans and closes her eyes.
“I want you to come for me, Zara.”
Her eyes fly open, and I move in. When I kiss her this time, there’s purpose behind it. I show her with my tongue what my fingers will do next . . . and am rewarded with a flood of heat and an undeniable tensing of her body against me. But I don’t let up. Not yet.
Zara doesn’t stand a chance of ever looking at a lake, a dock, or a gazebo again without thinking of this moment. The urge to leave an impression—to claim her—is ridiculous but undeniable, as if the primal side of me has taken over.
When I finally step away and see her face, I’m not thinking of her lips around my cock. Or of being inside her.
I don’t usually need approval, but tonight, I want it from her. I want her to tell me it felt so good that she doesn’t want any other man to ever do that to her.
Which is when I realize that I am completely and utterly fucked.
Talk about déjà vu.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, Cole and I walked down this very same path toward the lake. I had no idea what to expect then. This time, I think I do know—and I’m about to jump out of my skin anticipating it. My knees are already weak from the lingering kiss he gave me in his car.
When he dropped me off this morning after we spent the entire night talking and, of course, kissing, I wondered what might come next. Hours later, he asked if I wanted to come back to this very spot, “since it’s already set up,” and I jumped at the chance.
It was only then, after I’d already accepted, that he prompted me to bring a swimsuit. No concealer in the world will hide my face after I jump in that water. Somehow, the rest of my body was spared from the onslaught of freckles—I do have them, but they’re not so unsightly. My face is a nexus of them.
In the car over, I thought of every excuse in the book to avoid swimming. Ones I’ve used over the years without fail. But then I thought about how impressed he was last night, when I told him about quitting my job after my grandmother left her house to me.
She’d known my parents would never live there, but somehow she’d guessed that I might, that Bridgewater might call to me in much the same way it had called to her.
I guess she’d known me better than I know myself. The note in her will told me as much.
If you can up and quit a job like that, you can damn well jump in a lake, Zara.
Besides, he’s leaving in a few weeks. Last night might have felt magical and important, but it wasn’t the start of something earth-shattering. It can’t be. He lives in Philly, and I live here, with no desire to be lost in the anonymity of a bit city. After years of bopping from place to place, being known by no one, I like being recognized when I walk down the street. I like the Wheelhouse. And Main Street. And friendly faces. And my grandmother’s . . . my cute little cottage on the lake. I like my job too, even if I’ve been sucking at it lately.
I also like him.
Holding Cole’s hand feels so natural, as if we’ve been doing it for a lifetime.
Last night we left behind wine bottles and a half-eaten tray of food. All signs of it were gone, replaced with a cooler that definitely hadn’t been there the night before and several bags of pretzels and chips.
“Not as exotic, I know. But this one was all me. I cleaned up and dropped this off just before I came to get you.”
He really is something.
“And slept? And worked? Did you have the same eight hours as me?”
Letting go of my hand, Cole drapes his towel over the side rail of the gazebo.
Given he dropped me off just after six a.m., I’m pretty sure neither of us got much sleep, although I probably got more than him since I took the day off completely. Sometimes I work weekends, sometimes not. This weekend is shaping up to be a bust for me, workwise, and despite my struggles with the NatGeo piece, I am surprisingly okay with that.
“I won’t mention my run, then.”
Oh yes, he is very serious. As Cole lifts his T-shirt above his head, revealing more abs than I’ve ever seen in real life, it’s pretty clear he takes working out seriously.
“How do you eat that”—I nod to the bags of snacks—“and look like . . . that?”
His smile brims with confidence, but there’s no arrogance there. I’d imagined that. Standing there in the warm summer breeze, sun glistening off the lake behind us, I feel happy in a simple, uncomplicated way I savor. Today is shaping up to be an interesting afternoon for sure. And that’s when I see the floats.
“Did you bring those too?”
His smile widens.
“OK, this is officially crazypants. Where did you get floats this morning? In between sleeping and working and packing a cooler? Oh, and running, of course.”
“My mother,” he says, walking toward me. “Is a goddess.”
Reaching for me, Cole pulls me to him.
“Ah, I get it,” I say, teasing.
His hands slip behind my back, sending my heart into overdrive. “What do you get?”
Cole kisses me briefly on the lips before moving toward my neck.
“She’s one of those moms I’ll never be able to compete with.”
He really does know how to make perfect use of his tongue. I can’t even imagine what that would feel like . . .
He lifts his head and looks straight down, into my eyes. We stare at each other, neither of us willing to state the obvious. There’s no need for me to get to know his mother when we won’t be in an actual relationship.
Cole actually asked me last night, sometime between three and four in the morning, if I’d ever be willing to leave Bridgewater.
And I was completely honest with him. It feels like home, and before coming back, I hadn’t felt at home in a long, long time. Maybe not since we left in middle school.
“You know,” he says, and my hand freezes on its way to his abs. “I’m going to really, really love making you come again today.”
I’m about to say it’s his turn first when he unexpectedly reaches down and lifts my cover-up into the air. My arms lift up to help him, moving on instinct, and suddenly there I am, bikini-clad and freshly waxed, thanks to a last-minute appointment two hours ago.
If I wasn’t prepared to be stripped down to my bathing suit, I’m definitely not prepared when he scoops me up like a rag doll.
“Uh, where do you think you’re going?” I ask even though I already know the answer. “You wouldn’t dare!”
He doesn’t give me much time to protest. Cole steps onto the dock as I scream, “My flip-flops.”
He takes them off, pausing to slide his sandals off too, leaving zero doubt he’s actually planning to toss me into the lake.
“Cole,” I say as he gets to the end of the dock.
A mischievous glint in his eyes is the last thing I remember as I fly through the air. There’s just enough time to hold my nose before I’m completely submerged.
When I pop my head out of the water, he’s nowhere to be found. Until he emerges just next to me.
Like in some kind of movie, Cole runs a hand back through his wet hair, shoulder muscles rippling, and smiles.
It’s only when I see his speculative expression that I remember.
Spinning from him, I smooth my own hair back and take a few quick, deep breaths. As deep as possible, at least.
His hand shoots out as I tread water.
“Zara,” he repeats, spinning me around. I try to remember the last person who saw me without any concealer on.
“You aren’t seriously trying to hide your face?”
He pulls me in close, treading water for us both.
I’m not sure what to say.
He runs a finger down my cheek. “They are magnificent.”
I laugh so hard it comes out as more of a snort.
His lips are there before I have time to react. Coaxing my mouth open, kissing me with abandon. Kissing me like it would take away the pain of years and years of hiding.
By the time we break apart, I have no words. He could have said a hundred things, but instead he showed me. He showed me that a face full of freckles means nothing to him. That it doesn’t make me less beautiful in his eyes.
I really don’t want to ruin this moment by crying, but tears form before I can stop them.
“Oh, baby.” He wipes them away. “I’m so sorry you felt the need to hide them.”
He swims toward the ladder, tugging me by the hand.
I have no idea what he’s planning, but I hold on to the ladder anyway. Watch him as he runs up to the gazebo and flips open the cooler, grabbing two cans of what looks like lime-flavored beer. Then he retrieves the floats and comes back to me.
I struggle to climb up into a sitting position on one of the floats, but when I do, I’m rewarded with a beer.
“Didn’t we just stop drinking a few hours ago?”
He gets into the other float and then grabs his beer from the dock.
“What’s a day at the lake without a beer or two?”
Now that we’re both in position, he paddles toward me, reaching for my hand. I give it to him.
“Tell me everything,” he says.
I blink. “What do you mean?”
“Tell me when you started hating them. Who made fun of you. And why you cover them up. I want to know it all.”
My mouth drops open.
“How did you . . . ?”
“I was a skinny kid. A skinny teen. Hell, I was skinny until junior year of high school. And not just a little skinny. The kind where you spend your days drinking raw eggs and milkshakes to bulk up. But nothing worked. At least until college when my body decided it was time for a change.”
I honestly can’t imagine Cole as even a little skinny.
I reach for the beer and take a sip.
“Bones. It was my nickname in middle school. When I come back home and hear it, I go back to being a thirteen-year-old kid who hates his body, and himself, all over again. For a second, at least. Doesn’t take much to bring me back there mentally. It’s a lot easier than reminding myself I’m not that kid.”
“You’re anything but skinny now. One look in the mirror should do it, no?”
He squeezes my hand gently. “And you are even more beautiful now than you were before I tossed you in the lake.”
I would laugh if he weren’t so serious.
“But do you see a stunningly beautiful woman when you look in the mirror, Zara?”
He already knows I don’t.
“Perception is reality. I could tell you a hundred times I like you more this way, but you’ll never believe me. Not until you believe it for yourself. At least, that’s been my experience.”
“But your case is different. You physically transformed your body. Obviously.”
“And I still recoil like a kid when I hear that old nickname. Being skinny was just the half of it. That lack of confidence invaded every waking thought I had about myself.”
“Everyone has their own demons,” I muse.
“Indeed, they do.”
And mine have had a hold over me for far too long. Not today, Zara.
“Did you just steal my toast?”
Since Zara is sitting across from me, said toast in hand, it’s not really a fair question. But I don’t feel bad about trapping her when the evidence is being shoved into her mouth as we speak.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been five days since our first date. You can get to know someone fairly quickly when you spend every waking moment with them, even if it’s just for five days.
I’ve learned Zara loves white toast, even though she refuses to order it for herself, which is exactly why I got it.
I’ve learned attending Oxford as an international relations major is every bit as competitive and cutthroat as law school. And that Zara’s dad produced more than fifty stories over the course of his career for National Geographic and that his work has been on the cover of their magazine, TIME, and Smithsonian too. Zara is extremely close with both of her parents, despite their distance.
I have also learned she is really, really self-conscious about the freckles on her face. I’d hoped she would consider leaving them bare after Saturday, but when I picked her up Sunday morning after spending the whole day together on Saturday, only faint traces of them peeked out through her makeup. Her ability to make them so completely disappear is uncanny.
Although she doesn’t answer through her mouthful of toast, Zara shrugs, not overly concerned that I just accused her of theft.
“That’s fine. I’ll just eat my eggs all by their lonesome.”
“I left you one,” she points out.
I slide my sole piece of toast onto her plate. Rewarded with a smile, I vow to give her every piece of toast from here on out.
Whatever the hell that means.
I suppose it’s time for me to address the elephant in the room. Looking at my watch, just twenty minutes before I need to leave for court, I forge ahead.
“I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but I can’t meet up tonight. I’m meeting someone for dinner.” Realizing how that sounded, I add, “An old friend of my father’s.”
“You scared me for a second.” Zara’s eyes widen. “Not that I’m implying . . . I mean, you can have dinner with whoever you want, of course.”
Ah, the other elephant. This one can be easily shooed away.
“I’m a one-woman kind of guy, Zara.”
A sliver of panic digs into me as I realize, belatedly, she may not feel the same.
“Good,” she says with a smile. “Me too. Gal, I mean. Not guy. Clearly I’m not a guy.”
I smile and take a sip of coffee, winking at Mrs. Snider, who’s peering at us with a rapt expression.
“The reason we’re meeting,” I forge ahead, knowing this will open a can of worms, “is because he’s trying to get me to take over his law firm. Here in Bridgewater.”
The look on Zara’s face almost makes me want to accept Tony’s offer on the spot. I can tell she misunderstands.
“He’s tried before, to bring me into his firm. Apparently he’s moving to the Carolinas this fall. I assume he’ll make an offer to sell it to me for a pretty decent price.”
She peeks up over a half slice of toast.
“I’ve given it more thought than I planned to, given my new incentive to stick around, but ultimately, I think I’m going to pass it up.”
Zara doesn’t flinch, but her expression falls a little, and I curse myself inwardly for having caused that.
“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am now. Making partner at Smith & Sullivan is my ultimate goal. Something I never could have imagined my first year of law school.”
Pushing aside her plate, Zara leans forward, listening.
“My family was so proud that day, when I graduated. I’ll never forget the way they looked at me when I crossed the stage to accept my awards. I’ve never really cared much about that kind of stuff, but this . . . was different.”
“And what do they think? About this offer?” She looks directly at me, studying me, then says, “You didn’t tell them.” It’s not a question.
“No, not yet. I’ll tell them after I talk to him.”
“You’re afraid they’ll try to convince you to stay?”
“My dad is biased. He’s been friends with Tony since high school. And I think my mom would be happy if I moved back home.” I laugh, because it’s an understatement and then some.
“And your grandfather?”
I almost brought it up with him yesterday, but I didn’t. We talked about Zara, and his distaste for all his new doctor’s appointments. But not my job.
“I’m not sure what he would say, to be honest. Although, knowing Pops, it would be vague and less than helpful. He’d probably say something like, ‘It’s your decision to make.’ Which, I suppose, it is.”
I look at my watch. Almost time.
I hate leaving her . . . which is a ridiculous thought. If I’m this choked up about walking away from her for a few hours, what’ll it be like when I go back to Philly?
That’s the thought cycling around in my head when she asks softly, “And you’ve already made up your mind?”
There is no censure in her expression, or her tone. Only curiosity. Even though the implications for us are clear.
“Anyone in their right mind would think I’m nuts to consider passing on an opportunity to be a partner at Smith & Sullivan.”
I think of my last conversation with Dan Sullivan on Friday. He asked how the trial was going, and I ran him through the last few days. He said we’d have a lot to discuss when I came back to Philly. The ball is already rolling.
I wanted to talk about us, about what will happen when the trial is over. Instead, I just basically committed to an exclusive relationship with a woman who lives two hours away without having a single conversation about logistics. Brilliant. Well done, Cole.
“I have to go,” I say. “We’re calling a new witness this morning.”
Reluctantly, I stand and gather my things, then lean into the booth and kiss Zara like I’ve done it a million times before. Being with her is the easiest, most natural thing in the world.
The kiss, though entirely pleasant, leaves me wanting more.
“Will you be around tonight?”
She bites her lower lip, just for a second. But that’s all it takes.
“What about your dinner?” she asks.
I can feel Mrs. Snider’s eyes on me, and I know pretty much everyone in Bridgewater will know about this—about us—by the time I show up at the Coop tonight. Not that I care in the least. Just the opposite.
But the gossip still annoys me. It’s one of the aspects of small-town living that doesn’t appeal to me in the least.
“Wings and clams at the Coop. I shouldn’t be too long. Maybe I can come over to your place afterward?”
After spending all day Saturday and Sunday with me at the lake, Zara dozed in the car on the way back to her house. Not much of a surprise given we stayed up the whole night Friday. The last four nights we’ve gone out to dinner, somewhat more conventional dates.
Both times I kissed her goodnight and then left. I could tell she was surprised, but she stopped short of asking me to come in, and I didn’t suggest it. We fooled around plenty this weekend, but I refused to have our first time be in the grass, sticks poking at her ass.
Which marks the exact first time in my life I’ve ever overthought sex.
But everything is different with Zara. I just wanted to get closer to her first.
“I’d like that,” she says huskily.
Done. I can tell from her voice, her expression, Zara is thinking the same thing I am. Every touch, every sidelong gaze, has led to this evening. The only problem?
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, this will make that damn elephant loom larger than before.
I’ve always hated elephants, ever since one spit on me during a visit to a zoo when I was a kid. But at least I was able to walk away from that one.
The third installment of Overruled by Love will be coming your way on January 19th.
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