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Eighteen-year-old Caleb Aaron Jackson had one older brother and one younger. Put the three of them in a crowded room and he and his older brother, Cutter, invariably fought for the limelight. Set them to working together and Caleb became a fast-talking peacemaker between free-wheeling Cutter and stubborn Eli. Peacemaking wasn’t exactly his forte but at least he got points for trying—along with the occasional shiner and a reputation as a troublemaker that he absolutely didn’t deserve.
Give it another two days and his final set of school exams would be over and he’d be joining Cutter and their father and grandfather in the family business. Boat builder, marina lackey, trawler fisherman, dive boat operator . . . he almost had his dive-master’s certification already.
Yacht broker . . . he had a hankering to try his hand at that part of the family business too, although that might take a while, given that he’d have to wait for his grandfather to step aside first. The old man could shake loose every bit of cash in a seasoned yachtsman’s wallet with impressive ease, throw in a second-hand ship’s bell while he was at it, and the buyer would still walk away well pleased.
Caleb could see some of those old bells now, piled haphazardly on a dusty storage shelf above a half-built galley kitchen that had come out of someone’s yacht. Mainly because he was currently holed up in his grandfather’s storage area, the place where old ship fittings went to die.
Downstairs, a party rocked on without him; a mixture of his and Cutter’s friends and various girlfriends of the moment. With only eleven-month age difference between him and Cutter, their friendship groups tended to intertwine. Caleb would usually be down there in the thick of it, but not tonight. A bleak, black mood had descended on him and he’d retreated upstairs to the dusty little junk room that was his sanctuary.
Which was why, when he looked up and saw Breanna Tucker standing in the doorway, his scowl deepened.
“Party’s downstairs,” he told her curtly. “Cutter’s downstairs.”
This was pertinent information. Bree Tucker being Cutter’s girl and all.
But she didn’t go away. Instead, she came over to where he sat sprawled on some old deck cushions and stood looking down at him, her expression unreadable. She glanced at the half-full bottle of scotch at his side and her eyebrow rose in silent query or maybe displeasure. He never knew what Breanna Tucker was thinking when she looked at him. He didn’t know why the laughing, fun-loving girl others knew her to be clammed up silent and uncertain whenever he was around.
Or maybe he did know.
Same reason he turned into a silent, brooding ass.
“You don’t like me,” she said.
“You’re Cutter’s girl, not mine. I don’t have to like you.”
“You watch me when you think no one’s looking.”
“What is it that you see?”
“I see Cutter’s girl. A pretty girl.” She was pretty, he’d give her that. Possibly even stunning—all long limbs, sun-browned skin, honey-streaked hair and the liveliest smile. She had eyes that saw too much and lips made for kissing.
Watching her and Cutter kiss could gut him faster than skilled hands could gut a fish. “Cutter’s downstairs,” he growled. “You should be too.”
But she didn’t leave. “You’re beautiful, you know. All three of you Jackson boys are so impossibly photogenic. Eli and those eyes of his. Cutter’s smile. And you.”
She didn’t expand when it came to what she thought beautiful about him and maybe that was a good thing. “Those photos I took of the three of you unloading the morning catch . . . do you remember me taking them?”
He remembered. She’d been waiting on the dock for them one morning, just on daybreak. “Just ignore me,” she’d said to him and he’d wished he could. “Stop posing,” she’d said to Cutter and Cutter had grinned, wide and wicked and she’d caught that smile on film, of course she had. That picture now had pride of place on the boatshed wall, along with a good one of Eli and their father emptying a bin full of fish into the sorting grid.
Bree took his silence as an invite to stay. She settled down beside him on the cushions, picked up his whiskey and started drinking.
“Hey,” he protested and reached for the bottle in order to slow her down. “Easy, light-weight, it’s not water. Also . . . it’s mine.”
“You’re not going to drink it all,” she murmured, even as she shot him a sinner’s smile and licked a drop of stray bourbon from her lips. If she’d been his girl he’d have taken care of that perfectly placed stray droplet for her. As it was, he wrenched his gaze away from her lips and let her rest the bottle somewhere in her lap.
“I sent a dozen of those photos to an art school in Melbourne as part of my application for entry,” she said after a long minute’s silence. “I got in.”
“Congratulations.” He meant it. “They were good photos. Everyone loved them. My mother’s going to get the ones you gave to Cutter framed.”
“She hasn’t seen the best ones yet. No one has.”
“Why hide your best ones?”
“They were of you.”
He let that hang there. He didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, and a frozen moment later she dropped her gaze to the bottle still cradled in her hands. “Now all I have to do is tell my parents that I got in. And that I’m going.”
“You didn’t tell them?”
“Thousands of people apply to get in to this course every year. Thirty people get accepted. It was such a long shot that I didn’t think there was anything to tell them.”
“So now there is. Won’t they be pleased for you?”
Bree shrugged eloquently, her bare shoulders dark against the snowy white of the sundress she’d thrown on over her butter-yellow bikini. “My parents think that photography is something you do on the side, not as a profession.”
Her mother was a solicitor, her father a doctor. Bree was their only kid. He could see how her choice to pursue photography might not fly in the Tucker household.
“Have you ever wanted something and thought it was out of reach only to find that it’s not?” she asked, her eyes faintly pleading. “Caleb, it’s right there in front of me . . . all I have to do is reach out and take it, and I’m scared I’m going to fail and I know it’s going to turn my world upside down, but I want it so bad. Have you ever felt that way?”
He hadn’t. Not really. He shook his head. “My future’s mapped out for me and I like the shape of it.”
“The family business,” she murmured. “Jackson’s Marina, the next generation.”
“Yeah. I want this life. I love it. But you . . . if you want to be a photographer why not go after it? Have a little faith in yourself. The course selectors have faith in you.”
“Yeah, but what if it’s the wrong decision? What if it’s a mistake? I’ve been making a lot of those lately.”
“What kind of mistakes?”
“Keeping secrets. Not being entirely honest with myself.” Her gaze met his, naked and unguarded. “Wanting to be up here—with you—rather than down there with your brother.” She lifted the bottle to her lips again and his gaze got hopelessly snagged on the press of her lips against the opening. Again, he shot his hand out to slow her down.
“Enough,” he ordered gruffly. “Have you told Cutter you’re leaving?”
“In the morning. Cutter’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong. I’m going to miss him when I go and he’s going to miss me. I expect him to wait a full two weeks before he finds my replacement.”
“For you, he might wait three,” Caleb offered, and she laughed, low and husky, the noise wrapping around them, drawing him ever closer to making a huge mistake of his own.
“You keep ignoring what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “I wish I’d seen you first. Known you first. I wouldn’t have gone out with him if I’d met you first.”
“Bree, I can’t—”
“And now there’s no fixing it, because I know how close the two of you are, and I know you’re not going to make a move on me. There’s no time left. Nothing’s going to happen between us. I’m just going to spend the rest of my life wishing that it had.”
She lifted the bottle and he stopped her, leaning forward and getting all up in her space as he took the whisky from her and set it out of the way. “You don’t need that.”
“Yeah, but I want it.” Her gaze skittered to his lips. “It’ll make me feel good about myself.”
“Not for long.”
“Doesn’t seem to have stopped you.”
She raised her hand, tentatively placing her palm over his heart, or thereabouts. His nipples pebbled instantly, he closed his eyes and fought for the control required to keep his hands to himself. Not that she afforded him a similar courtesy for she grew bolder, scraping the edge of her thumb across his nipple before moving on to his collarbone, up his neck to his jaw. She pressed the pad of her thumb to his bottom lip next and he took a ragged breath. He stayed motionless, not touching her, still not betraying his brother. But damned if he wasn’t trembling ever so slightly.
So was she.
Her thumb moved, a tiny drag across the flesh of his lip, a catch, soothed moments later by the soft swipe of her tongue. He would’ve liked to call the sound he made next a protest but it wasn’t. It was a ragged groan of approval.
And then she wove her hands in his too-shaggy hair and brought his lips down to hers and he let her be the aggressor for all of two seconds before he opened for her and took what he’d been dreaming of taking for the past six months. A kiss deep enough to drown in. A taste of the forbidden.
He’d never tasted anything sweeter.
He usually took his time when it came to kissing. He liked to savor the moment and feed the senses, get a little heat in his belly before deciding where to go from there. A cerebral response just as much as a sensual one, but there was no thinking involved in this. No time to even catch a breath.
Whatever she wanted, he’d give it to her. His lips at her neck? Yes. On the curve of her breast, pushing fabric aside to find her nipple and tease it to hardness? Yes. An element of punishment in his touch, for making him want her enough to betray his brother?
No thought but the slaking of hunger as he leaned back against the cushions, drawing her with him, his hands beneath her dress. More kisses then, so much more skin as she straddled him and gasped when he settled her right where he wanted her to be, tucked up tight against the solid line of his dick, his hands riding low on her hips and his thumbs circling over her skin, skating over the fabric of her bikini at first, feathery circles until he could no longer stand it and slipped his thumb beneath.
She was slick and warm and perfect, so perfectly responsive but he needed that verbal yes. He needed her to know what she was doing. “Is this what you want from me?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”
“You planning on comparing me to my brother?”
“There’s no comparison.”
He’d never in his life been so blindingly hard, his body no longer his to command. Her swimwear headed south. His board-shorts came undone, and there were things to consider like protection, and betrayal, but his brain wasn’t working. “Bree,” he began as she crawled into his lap and took him in hand and showed him where she wanted him to be. “We need—
She sank down onto him and every good intention he’d ever harbored got lost beneath the onslaught of tight-hot-slick and above all, virginal, and the heat running rampant through his blood. “Was that . . . ?”
“Heaven help me, Caleb. Don’t start.”
“But you’ve never—”
“No. Not before now. Not with anyone. Only you.” She kissed him slow and sweet and he kind of lost track of his objection. Little slides, slow and restrained as he worked her open, he knew that much about how these things should proceed, he’d done this before. Never with a virgin. Dear heaven, Bree was a virgin.
Or had been.
“Does it hurt?” he muttered, because he wasn’t small and Bree was pretty slight.
“No.” Her mouth told him one thing while her eyes told him another.
“You should have said. We could have gone slow.”
“I don’t want slow.”
“Yeah, but what you want and what you need might not be the same thing,” he offered raggedly, and tried his damnedest to bring his body under control and make it good for her. Open kisses, slick and breathy. Tiny movements of his hips against hers, an incremental grind and his cock hard and aching. Still tight, so tight, but the pleasure when finally he pulled out and then slid smoothly back in . . .
The way she shuddered all around him . . .
“Protection.” First and foremost, it didn’t seem to be happening.
Not that covered. And so so good to go bare.
The cushions squeaked beneath them, a counterpoint to breathy cries and bitten-off moans. He was done talking. Done closing his eyes and trying to pretend that this wasn’t happening. A thousand stolen glances had gotten them to this point, betrayal in each and every one of them. And let’s not get him started on what he’d imagined in his dreams.
He wanted this.
He took it.
Faster now, to match the thumping bass drifting up from the party below. Bree’s hair in his fist and in his face—moonlight all around them and dust motes in the air—and he’d never had sex like this before, buried so deep, all the way to his balls, every piece of him crazy for her—mind, body and soul.
She could have been a dancer, the way she moved, the grace she possessed.
She could have been an angel, that smile, right there, as she took his hand and brought it to her center, reminding him of her pleasure.
“Wanted to see you like this,” she whispered. “Not scowling at me or condemning me. Not locked down so tight you were like a blank page. So impossibly beautiful, Caleb. You don’t know what you do to people.”
Apparently he betrayed them, but he didn’t tell her to stop. He never wanted her to stop.
She came on his cock, a writhing creature of passion and flame and he followed her willingly into heaven, into hell.
First time he ever realized they could be one and the same.
Caleb figured out how to breathe again in the aftermath. He held a trembling Breanna through the twitches that shuddered through their bodies and the blissful lethargy that followed. He shifted up, his back to the wall, still cradling her in his lap as he buried his hands in her hair and his face in her neck, trying to find her beneath the heavy scent of sex. He kissed her, over and over. Long, drugging kisses that felt like worship and sorrow and goodbye.
And then a tear tracked down her face and then another and he caught them with his lips and soothed with his tongue. “Hey . . . ” he murmured. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said, and shot him a watery smile. “We’re good.”
Perhaps they had different definition of the word good. His didn’t usually involve tears. “Did I hurt you?”
“No.” Her arms around his neck tightened and her lips found his skin. “No.”
“Then why the tears?”
“I just—I’ve never had a moment like that one. So perfect, Caleb. I wanted it. I feel like I’ve stolen it. I loved it, and I’m never going to tell a soul. Makes me want to cry.”
He took a deep breath and laid his heart out before her, just in case she hadn’t notice that it was already hers. “I don’t mind if people know.”
But she was already scrambling off him and shaking her head as she did so. “No. You don’t have to do that.”
“Cutter’ll get over it.” Probably. Eventually.
“No! Don’t do that for me. You’re staying here and so’s he and you need each other. Protect the relationships you need.”
“Doesn’t have to be that way, Bree.”
“Yes, it does, can’t you see? I’m already gone. Don’t mess up your life for me when I won’t even be here. Don’t tell anyone, Caleb. Please. I’m not asking for me.”
They stared at each other in silence and then finally he shrugged. “Your call.”
She got her clothes on fast and so did he. She stood in front of him, all big eyes and silent pleading, and he did his best to smooth down her hair and make her look as if she hadn’t just been loved to excess. He took her face in his hands and kissed her and watched in silence as her eyes filled back up with tears.
“I won’t regret this,” she told him fiercely. “I will always think of you with love and with pleasure. Can you . . . will you do the same for me?”
“You’re killing me, Bree.”
“You go through girls like crazy. I’m just one more.”
“Is that what you think?” She was Cutter’s girl—or had been. His brother was his closest friend and until this moment Caleb had stood shoulder to shoulder with him on everything. Did she really not see what kind of hold she had on him?
He smiled crookedly. “There’s a washroom just to the left of the stairs, once you get down.”
She probably knew where it was already but she nodded, kissed him one last time with a savoring intensity that threatened to drop him to his knees, and headed for the door.
She looked back, just once, and in that moment he thought that maybe, just maybe, she loved him with the same wild intensity that he loved her.
And then, she was gone.
He waited five minutes, maybe ten, head bowed and eyes closed—trying to make sense of what had just happened, what he’d risked besides his heart and what he’d lost. He picked up the bottle of scotch and picked at the label for a while before taking a long pull of bitterness, and then he hurled it against the wall and watched it smash to smithereens.
A waste of good alcohol.
He ran his hands over his face and headed for the stairs, skipping the last few steps the way he always did, to land at the bottom with jarring speed. He looked up to find Eli watching him from the shadows of the slipway wall.
Nothing to see here, brother. Nothing to see.
Except that Eli always had been able to see beneath the surface to the bones beneath.
Caleb watched as a range of emotions flitted over his little brother’s face. Incredulity, condemnation, resignation—step by heart-rending step, the fracturing of a brother’s trust.
“Was she worth it?” his brother asked bleakly as Caleb drew closer and Caleb was hard pressed not to deck his little brother where he stood. Only the knowledge that none of this was Eli’s fault stayed his hand.
His doing. His choice. His mistake and he owned it.
“She was to me.”
End of Excerpt