She had erected walls in front of her walls, barriers intended to keep anyone from getting too close, which was why Slim was completely shocked that she’d asked him to stay with her. Not that he was complaining. Not at all. He was thrilled but shocked, too. Standing before the mirror in the lighthouse’s tiny bathroom, he shaved his face and puzzled through the unexpected turn of events.
During their many phone calls, FaceTime chats and texts over the last few months, she’d let him see her witty side as they bantered back and forth. Other than the night last summer when she’d asked him about his real name and she’d told him about the twin brother she’d lost, they hadn’t delved too far beneath the surface. They talked about the winter weather in Florida versus Rhode Island, about his customers and flights, the places he went with his plane and the activities that kept Erin and her band of friends busy on the island during the cold winter months.
They talked about the TV shows they were watching, and had watched much of the last season of “The Voice” together, rooting for the same contestant to win.
Not once had they talked about where all those conversations might be leading. He’d asked her where she planned to be during the holidays, and when she said she was debating between staying on the island or going home to Pennsylvania, he asked if he could see her after the McCarthys’ party. When he touched down on the island’s runway yesterday, he hadn’t known whether he would be here for one day or twelve days or what. He’d cleared his schedule in Florida through the holidays, hoping the longer visit to Gansett would materialize.
She’d seemed genuinely thrilled to see him last night, as thrilled as he was to see her after counting the days for weeks. And kissing her had been… He blew out a deep breath. That had been incredible, if also unexpected.
This entire situation with her was unexpected. He’d spent his adult life chasing the sun and the work. He flew out of Gansett Island in the summer and Palm Beach in the off-season, taking people where they needed to go while studiously avoiding anything that smacked of commitment in his personal life. That just wasn’t his style—or it hadn’t been before the September night when he rescued Erin on a dark road and found himself on the business end of a hook, getting reeled in slowly but surely by a woman for the first time ever.
It was funny, really, when you considered how much pleasure he’d taken in mocking his friends Mac, Adam, Grant and Evan McCarthy, who’d fallen one by one in the last couple of years, along with Owen Lawry, the Martinez brothers, Luke Harris and even Seamus O’Grady. His Gansett Island friends had gone to the “dark” side of love and marriage, and if a happier bunch of bastards had ever lived, Slim hadn’t yet met them.
And now here he was, inordinately delighted by an invitation from the emotionally remote but incredibly sexy, beautiful lighthouse keeper who wanted him to stay with her for the next twelve days. The lighthouse was charming but tiny, with a bedroom, a small bathroom, a galley kitchen and a cozy living room. It had some of the best views of anywhere on the scenic island. But the one thing it didn’t have was a second bedroom.
As he combed his hair and cleaned up the bathroom, he couldn’t wait to see what bedtime might bring. Would he be spending another night on her comfortable sofa, or would he get to sleep with her? The thought of sleeping with her again, of holding and kissing her, not to mention the many other possibilities, had his skin tingling with anticipation. Though he’d studiously avoided commitment and anything that smacked of a relationship, he’d found himself craving more of this particular woman after spending time with her last fall.
Now that he was finally here, in her home, where she seemed to want him as much as he wanted to be there, he didn’t care what they did—or didn’t do. Knowing he had twelve long, cold winter days to snuggle in with her was the best Christmas gift he’d ever received.
Dressed in jeans and a sweater, Slim came down the stairs to find the table set with blue plates with white anchors in the middle of them. Erin was in the kitchen, wearing an apron, and he had the highly inappropriate thought that he’d like to see her in only the apron sometime. He forced that thought from his head so he wouldn’t have to deal with an embarrassing situation.
“Something smells good.” His stomach let out a loud growl to make his point.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s just pancakes and sausage.”
“Too late. I’m excited.”
“Clearly it doesn’t take much to get you excited.”
“That’s not true at all. It takes a lot. Like a gorgeous woman making me a delicious breakfast while wearing a sexy apron. What’s not exciting about that?” He helped himself to another cup of coffee and topped off her mug, too.
“How do you know it’s going to be delicious?”
“Because you made it.” He kissed her cheek and left her to finish cooking, because what he really wanted to do was kiss her senseless. There’d be time for that later, after she lost the wariness that remained in her expression when she looked at him. Was she wondering if he was sincere in his interest in her? How could she still be wondering about that after all the hours they’d spent talking over the last few months?
He’d never spent that much time talking to any woman without sex as part of the equation. But how could she know that lengthy conversations weren’t part of his regular routine? He’d have to find a way to let her know that nothing about their “friendship,” or whatever you wanted to call it, was regular or routine for him.
The breakfast was, in fact, delicious, and he scored more points by offering to do the dishes while she showered. As he worked, he noticed the family photos on the refrigerator, zeroing in on the smiling dark-haired young man who looked so much like Erin, right down to the dimple in his cheek and the devilish look in his eyes. He had to be Toby, and seeing a picture of him for the first time, Slim ached for her loss.
She came down the spiral stairs a short time later with her hair in a ponytail, wearing a red wool sweater adorned with white snowflakes, and faded jeans, looking far more like a college co-ed than a thirty-eight-year-old woman. He’d been shocked when she’d once referred to herself as an old lady because she was in her late thirties. Before she told him her age, he would’ve guessed thirty at most. He was thirty-nine and amazed to be having genuine feelings for a woman for the first time since high school.
“Ready?” he asked, stashing his phone in his back pocket.
“Whenever you are.”
They took his truck to the Martinez Lawn & Garden retail store, where they spent half an hour picking out the perfect tree.
Jenny Martinez was working the cash register when they went inside to pay. “Hey, guys,” she said, clearly surprised to see him with Erin. “What brings you out on this freezing-cold day?”
Slim produced the price tag the guy working in the yard had given him. “Erin needed a Christmas tree.”
“Erin doesn’t do Christmas trees,” Jenny said with a questioning look for Erin.
Erin shrugged. “I guess I do this year.”
“Very interesting,” Jenny said with a grin for her friend.
Slim handed over three twenties for the tree.
“Hey, wait!” Erin said. “I want to chip in.”
“You can buy the lights. We also need a wreath and some of that red stuff over there.”
“The winterberry?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah, that. It’ll look good in a vase on the table, don’t you think, sweetheart?” He went over to pick out a bundle of sticks they didn’t really need—and gave her a chance to talk about him “behind his back.”
“Holy shit!” Jenny said in an exaggerated whisper. “What gives?”
“Not sure what you mean,” Erin said, though she knew exactly what her friend was getting at.
“You. Him. Buying a tree. Together. He called you sweetheart. Any questions?”
Erin laughed at Jenny’s recitation. “He’s hanging out with me for the holiday and wanted a tree. And winterberry, apparently.” She glanced at him on the other side of the store where he was having an animated conversation with Paul Martinez.
“Hanging out,” Jenny said, making air quotes. “Is that a metaphor?”
“For what?” While she tried to avoid Jenny’s probing stare, Erin arranged and rearranged things on the counter.
Placing a hand over Erin’s to refocus her attention, Jenny waggled her brows suggestively.
“Not yet it isn’t.”
“But it might be?”
“We’re taking it hour by hour. So far, it’s been fun. That’s all I can tell you.”
“You’re still coming tonight, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Bring him. Alex and Paul adore him. They’d love to have him there, and so would I so I can gauge his intentions toward my sweet sister-friend Erin.”
For many years after Toby died, she and Jenny had struggled to define their relationship to outsiders. Somehow “friend” didn’t seem adequate when they should’ve been sisters-in-law. Over time they’d settled on sister-friend, but it had been a very long time since either of them had used the term. Hearing it now brought special meaning to a day that was already shaping up to be pretty special.
“I’m sure he’d love to come. I’ll ask him.”
“You’re still bringing your famous seven-layer dip, right?”
“Good, because Alex asked me to make sure. I think he’d eat it with a spoon if I’d let him.”
“I’ll make extra for him.”
“He would love you forever for that.”
Slim rejoined them, carrying a huge bundle of winterberry. “Are you done talking about me?”
“Could he be any more full of himself?” Erin asked Jenny.
“Did she talk about me? Tell me the truth.”
“She didn’t say a word about you,” Jenny said with a straight face.
“Nothing at all? I’m gutted, crushed, devastated.”
“You’re also very dramatic.” Amused, Erin handed over a twenty to pay for the winterberry and took the ten in change. “Let’s get going. We’ve got a tree to decorate.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” Jenny said.
“See you then.”
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do in the meantime,” she whispered to Erin. “Which means anything goes.”
“Shut it!” Erin said, leaving Jenny laughing.
While Slim put the tree in the back of his pickup truck, she got into the cab that smelled of his distinctive cologne. If rakish sex appeal, quick wit and sharp intelligence could be captured in a scent, whatever he wore did the trick for her.
He got into the truck and fired it up, blasting the heat. The frigid day was overcast and stormy, the kind of winter day she loved and the majority of sane people hated.
Erin never used to love winter as much as she did now, but the older she got, the more she enjoyed hibernating in the winter. Although on Gansett Island, an endless array of social events kept everyone busy during the off-season, making hibernation difficult. It was probably just as well, or she’d be a total hermit by now.
“Where to?” she asked as he pulled the truck onto the main road.
“Now we go to find some lights and ornaments for the tree.”
“I saw some stuff at the pharmacy last week. Not sure if it’s still there or sold out by now.”
“We’ll start there. If necessary, we’ll go beachcombing for ornaments.”
Erin liked the way he operated, how he didn’t sweat the small stuff and made the most mundane things, like eating breakfast, fun. In that way, he was her polar opposite. She sweated everything—big stuff and small. She was an obsessive over-thinker, which was why she’d shocked not only him but herself with the spontaneous invitation to stay with her.
For once, she hadn’t taken the time to think the plan through from every possible angle and outcome. She’d just acted, and the look on his face had been priceless and well worth the lack of dithering that would normally precede such a decision.
She hadn’t always been this way. At one time, she’d driven her parents insane with the number of times she’d changed her major before settling on pre-law. Her spontaneity had gotten her in trouble on more than one occasion, never more so than when perpetrating pranks with her equally mischievous twin. That side of her had died with him.
She’d read once about a man who’d detested chocolate until he had surgery and awoke from the anesthesia craving chocolate. Similarly, Erin had emerged on the other side of her tremendous loss a completely different person. Even all these years later, she was still getting to know that new person—and new Erin was someone else altogether when Slim Jackson was around.
Rediscovering the lighthearted girl she used to be had been an interesting side effect of her friendship with him. She’d nearly forgotten that girl had once resided inside her, but finding her again after all this time was like a revelation in and of itself. And that, more than anything, was why she’d asked him to stay. She liked how she felt when he was around—unburdened, hopeful, giddy, aroused, breathless, off-balance.
Those feelings also made her nervous for what would happen after he left again. His invitation to join him in Florida had stunned her. But what had stunned her even more was how much she wanted to take him up on it.
He was slowly but surely dragging her out of the shell she’d crawled into long ago, hiding from the parts of life she found too painful to deal with. Inside that shell, she was safe and protected from things that could hurt her. The thought of a life outside the shell made her shudder in fear of what happened when you loved someone too much and they were ripped from your life suddenly and without warning.
“Are you cold?” Slim asked, turning up the heat.
“Little bit,” she said, rather than confess to the fears that had her shuddering.
Being on the island had helped to crack the shell somewhat. It was impossible to be around the people who lived here and not engage in meaningful relationships and new friendships. They simply wouldn’t allow anyone to wallow by themselves for too long, and now there was a man who wasn’t going to allow her to wallow either. At some point, she’d have to decide how far out of the shell she was willing to venture.
Slim parked the truck at the pharmacy and turned off the engine. “You okay over there? You’re awfully quiet.”
“What I wouldn’t give to know what goes on inside that head of yours.”
Erin laughed at the way he said that. “It’s probably better that you don’t.”
“I don’t know about that. Wait for me.”
At first she didn’t know what he meant, and then he was opening her door and helping her out of the truck. “While I appreciate your manners, I’m perfectly capable of getting out by myself.”
“You get me, you get my manners, too, sweetheart.” He also held the door to the pharmacy for her and ushered her in ahead of him with a hand to her lower back.
As a fully self-sufficient woman, she wanted to argue some more about his need to play the role of protective alpha man. But she enjoyed the courtesy too much to protest. She’d never been with a man who was so consistent about holding doors, and though it would take some getting used to, she decided she could live with his brand of gallantry.
They found a picked-over display of Christmas decorations in the front of the store. There were six boxes of white lights left, and he grabbed all of them.
“Why do we need so many lights?” Erin asked.
“My rule is, until it hurts to look at the tree, you don’t have enough lights. Six boxes ought to do it.”
“That’s ridiculous, but if you insist…”
“I do.” With the lights tucked under one arm, Slim reached for a box of gold ornaments.
Erin stopped him. “I like your beachcombing idea. It’s much more original than generic gold balls.”
“It’ll be cold out there today.”
“I can handle it if you can with your thin Florida blood.”
His rich, wicked-sounding laugh sent a bolt of heat rippling through her body. He was sexy all the time, but when he laughed or smiled, his sexiness reached incendiary levels. “You’re on, babe.”
And she liked when he called her that and sweetheart. She liked it an awful lot.