No Sweeter Love by Tina Vaughn

CHAPTER ONE

Ryan held a strawberry milkshake in one hand, his father’s ashes in the other — and hoped like hell he didn’t get them mixed up.

Sweat trickled down his neck.

The heat surprised him considering June in the North Carolina mountains, at least from what he remembered, had hovered around eighty degrees.

Of course, he hadn’t set foot in this godforsaken place for ten years, and he’d spent most of that last summer naked — with Emily Winters.

He turned to stare at her. Couldn’t help it.

Her long black hair was slicked back into a ponytail; he’d always preferred it loose. Those soulful brown eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses, almost all the rest of her shrouded by the dull blue Union Police Department uniform.

He shouldn’t have felt anything, certainly not the surge of desire that accelerated his pulse.

But, God help him, she still boasted the tightest little body he’d ever seen – or felt.

She was… perfection. One of those women who inspired vivid sexual fantasies — and for nicer guys, probably poems and songs and sappy crap like that.

He knew the exact moment when Emily caught him staring. He could feel her gaze as warm as the sunshine on his face.

Her shoulders stiffened and she unfolded her arms to reach behind her, tugging at the ponytail, the movement stretching the shirt across her lush breasts.

He couldn’t help the grin that tugged at his lips.

She was still a tease.

She didn’t return his smile. He didn’t expect her to. It wasn’t like there was any love lost between them.

Well, hell. Actually he guessed there was…

The glint of her badge snared his attention. Who would’ve thought that the “thieving liar” his father had despised would’ve grown up to be a police officer?

And a respected one at that. He couldn’t imagine how else a five-foot-two-inch woman could serve as such an effective barricade.

Behind her, what had been a few nosy bystanders just minutes earlier had swelled into a decent-sized crowd. It seemed most of the town had turned up for his father’s private memorial service. That was thing he hated about Union. Nothing was private.

He clenched his jaw to keep from cursing them all, to keep from making a scene. That’s what they expected. They were whispering, staring. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see them carrying torches and pitchforks. But they didn’t need them. The town monster was already dead. His grip tightened on the small urn in his hand.

Jackson Williams’ death had to be the biggest news to hit Union since — well — it’d be twenty-five years next month. Ryan just didn’t have enough control to think about it now.

He took another long sip of his milkshake, dense and cold… just like his father.

If the old man had a grave, he’d be spinning circles about now.

Ryan examined the collage of faces. Some he recognized. Some he didn’t. They looked at him with varying emotions: anger, hate, pity. Except for Emily who wouldn’t look at him at all.

Well, if they’d expected a speech or something, they were shit-outta-luck.

He turned his back on them and upended the urn. The breeze caught the ashes, carrying them over and into the muddy river just a foot below.

Amazing that an entire man could fit in a frigging bottle.

The river was up, flowing fast after last night’s rain. Maybe he’d go fishing while he was here, or kayaking. Emily had preferred canoeing. His dad had never so much as dipped a toe in the river as far as Ryan could remember. Why the hell had he wanted his final resting place here?

Ryan wasn’t sure what he felt. Confusion, certainly. Anger, definitely. Sadness? Relief? Maybe.

The whispers grew louder as the minutes passed. The intruders didn’t even have the decency to keep quiet.

He didn’t expect them to respect his father, hell he hadn’t. But it was the principle of the matter.

Emily didn’t make a move as he approached her, but those lined behind her stepped back in unison, as if a string connected them all. Puppets.

“Is there a problem, Dr. Williams?”

Her voice was as soft and husky as he remembered, but her words were brusque, as if  talking to a stranger.

So she wanted to play that game.

He looked pointedly at the badge over her left breast. “Yes, Officer Winters. There is.”

Her response was a brief appearance of dark brows above her aviators and a slight pink in her cheeks.

“Get them out of here.” He pointed at the spectators behind her. “You and I both know they’re not mourners.”

When she didn’t move, didn’t utter a word, he stepped closer — and smelled peaches. His heart pounded.

“And take those damned glasses off. I can’t see you.”

He was surprised she listened to him. Emily removed the glasses with a shaking hand. She must not be as unaffected at their reunion as she wanted him to believe.

Good. Because it took damn near everything he had in him to keep him from hauling her into his arms. What would it be like to kiss her again? Would she still taste the same?

Or would it be like kissing a stranger?

She made one elegant gesture with her slim hand and the crowd turned and walked toward their vehicles, parked haphazardly in the open field.

She looked up at him and all his muscles tightened instantly – all of them. Desire and lust churned in his gut. He’d convinced himself over the years that she hadn’t been that pretty, that he hadn’t been that attracted to her, that he hadn’t missed her.

He’d been wrong.

Her eyes were dark, like coffee. More black than brown. And so expressive. He saw the confusion, the curiosity… the fear in them. No wonder she’d wanted to keep her glasses on. 

She chewed at her bottom lip and drew in a shaky breath. “I’m sorry about your father.”

Maybe she had changed. She’d led him on, but she’d never lied to him.

“Don’t be a hypocrite. I can take it from anyone but you.”

She flinched, then nodded. “You’re right.” She took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring. “I’m sorry you had to come back.”

He knew that was the truth.

“Me too.”

Because if he hadn’t returned, he could have gone on pretending that Emily Winters was nothing more than an old flame.

Now he knew for certain that she was a fire that might never burn out.

Equal parts panic and excitement warred inside Emily. She’d been both dreading and anticipating this day for years.

Ryan wore gray slacks and a white button-up, a perfect foil for his tanned skin. Even dressed so casually, he looked as out of place in Union as a chicken in church.

His gray eyes were stormy with an odd combination of anger, disbelief and desire. She just knew he was trying to figure out whether to kiss or curse her.

She should have taken the decision out of his hands then. Should’ve just walked away with the others. But she couldn’t make herself move.

His blonde hair was a little longer than she remembered. And he had a few wrinkles, mainly on his forehead and around his mouth. Probably because he frowned all the time, like he was frowning at her now.

He looked — damn good — like a model or actor or someone else rich and famous. And he was so big, like a linebacker, all muscled chest and arms and shoulders and…

She’d always loved how big he was; her womb contracted at the thought.

The flare of desire, the remembered passion, was surprising. She’d been just 18  when she’d given her heart, then her virginity, to Ryan Williams. Those were things a girl couldn’t get back. On the other hand, an independent woman didn’t need them.

As least, that’s what she’d told herself all these years.

 “Don’t look at me like that.”

His frown morphed into a tight smile, revealing killer dimples. “Like what?”

“Like I just spit in your cereal and like you want to eat me with a spoon. It’s weird.”

Her mind was whirling with a decade’s worth of images and feelings. Just seeing him again had rattled loose a million questions, a million old hurts and longings.

He laughed. “Still not afraid of anything, huh, Em.”

She nodded, because actually, she was afraid. Afraid to say anything else, afraid that if she opened her mouth some of those questions would spew forth.

And then he’d know.

Know that she’d never gotten over him. That she’d never come to terms with his leaving.

That the long kiss and brief explanation he’d given her ten years ago wasn’t enough. Would never be enough to satisfy a girl’s need for happily ever after, a woman’s need for closure.

As she turned to follow the dissipating crowd, she had no warning that he’d touch her. His huge hand clasped her shoulder. She jerked, couldn’t help it. Couldn’t fight the sting of tears that burned her eyes, so she closed them.

“Stay with me a while,” he whispered, so close that she could feel his hot breath stir the damp tendrils of hair brushing against her nape.

Wind whispered through the pine trees, the soft shushing sound should have been comforting.

It wasn’t.

It felt as if the world, Mother Nature herself, was telling her to keep her mouth shut.

She didn’t look at him, couldn’t. Because she wasn’t going down that road again. Wasn’t about to repeat her mistakes. Wasn’t about to make new ones. Back then she’d had nothing to hide, nothing to lose. But now…  She was stronger, braver. But she wasn’t stupid.

So she shrugged off his touch, shrugged off the memories and kept on walking, telling herself that she was doing the right thing. That Ryan was exactly where he belonged. Behind her.

But he wouldn’t let her go. He grabbed her again, pulling her to him almost forcefully. Why couldn’t he have been this persistent a decade ago? 

She took a deep breath. Stupid move. She inhaled his musky scent, a combination of rich, woodsy cologne, the outdoors and Ryan. Just Ryan. She thanked God the polyester-blend of her police-issued shirt was thick enough to hide her peaking nipples.

She tried to pull away, but his huge arm circled her waist and hauled her more firmly against his chest. He hissed in a breath. Desire pooled low in her belly and for a moment she stopped fighting and leaned against him, turned just enough to press her cheek against the fine cotton of his shirt, wishing it were his skin.

As if her arms had minds of their own, they snaked around his waist. His muscles were firm, warm and familiar.

“Stay with me,” he whispered against her ear.

Emily stiffened and pushed away from him. They were the last words she’d said to him ten years ago, just before he’d left her standing on Main Street and driven out of her life in his brand new Porsche. She wondered if that’s what his dad had given him in exchange for dumping her.

“Come on, Emily. We need to sit down and talk sometime. It’s been ten years. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I have no interest in catching up.”

“Please.” The word was grated out, as if he’d never had to use it before.

He seemed sincere. And she wished she could trust him, but —

It wasn’t that she still loved him. It wasn’t even that she hated him. She just couldn’t forgive him.

He reminded her of one of the other foster kids she’d lived with for a few months when she was eight. He’d told her how pretty her doll was and asked to see it. When she’d handed it to him, he’d ripped the baby’s eyelashes off. Poor little thing was never the same after that. Emily hadn’t been able to look at her without crying.

“It’s no use, Ryan.”

He shook his head, disbelief etched in the lines of his face.

 “Can’t we move on? We were kids. Things change, you know. I’ve changed.” He grasped her hand and tugged her closer. His fingers rubbed across her wrist, and a rush of heat stabbed her palm, the pleasure-pain coursing throughout her body to gather and pulse at her core.

She looked from their clenched hands up into his smooth-shaven face. She itched to flatten her hands against his cheeks, smooth the wrinkles from his furrowed brow, kiss his tightened lips until they relaxed, opened…

She pulled her hand from his and rubbed her tingling palm along her thigh. She wasn’t sure if she was trying to capture those long-forgotten sensations or erase them.

He shoved his hands through his hair. “You want me to be the bigger person here? Well, then. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I never meant to.”

“Pain is pain, whether it’s intentional or not. You’re a doctor. Surely, you’ve learned that.”

“I loved you the best I could.”

Loved.

Past tense.

Emily glanced away from his solemn expression, from the old hurt, to see Jolene Baker’s knowing smile and flirty wink just before the town matriarch hopped into her old Buick.

Shit. Union. Population 994. Town motto: Where no secret goes untold.

Ryan was going to turn her world upside down all over again… if she let him.

She took a step back, putting distance between them. As long as he didn’t touch her she’d be okay.

“You listen here. This is my home. I’ll be here white-haired and rocking on my front porch decades after you’ve high-tailed it back to some crowded city to drink your overpriced French wine and eat snails.”

“I don’t eat snails.” He grinned. The jerk was mocking her.

“Fine. Forget the snails. But, I know you. You’re here for how long? A few days? A week? I don’t know what you’re after, but we don’t have time for a stroll down memory lane. And I’m not interested in traveling down a dead end road with you – again.”

Ryan frowned, his eyes narrowed and a muscle jerked in his jaw. He was pissed. She recognized that anger more clearly than if he’d spewed a hundred angry words at her.

Suck it up, Golden Boy.

“These people you mock, these people you hate… They’d welcome you home with open arms if you’d let them. Instead, you’re going to run. Because that’s what you do. Because you don’t do relationships. Remember? The only reason you’re back at all is because you knew you wouldn’t have to stay. Your dad’s dead. You have no ties here. You. Here. It’s temporary.”

Ryan shoved his hands into the pockets of his tailored slacks. “And everybody knows you’re the expert on temporary, right? But obviously you’ve put all that behind you,” he mocked, tapping her badge with a blunt fingertip.

Emily felt like she’d just been stunned with a Taser.

Ryan had the decency to look ashamed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

Emily dropped her head, stared down at the green grass, thought about the good things in her life — her friends, her work, eating a slice of Jolene’s homemade chocolate pie while sitting in her favorite corner booth at the diner. And when she finally had a handle on that old hurt and anger, she looked Ryan straight in the eye.

“And that’s the problem. Don’t you get it? You never mean anything you say.”

24 Responses to “No Sweeter Love by Tina Vaughn”

  1. Cynthia Selwyn October 16, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    This was awesome! From the first line on to the last, I was engaged, enthralled and entertained.

    • Tina Vaughn October 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      Thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoyed it. : )

  2. Erin K. October 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    I love a good reunion story, and this first chapter definitely sparked my interest to read more! The attraction between Emily and Ryan was hot and their past history is intriguing. You did a great job of revealing just enough backstory sprinkled in with engaging dialogue. The opening line was funny and hooked me right away and your closing line from Emily reveals her vulnerability. Very well done, Tina!

    • Tina Vaughn October 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

      Thanks so much, Erin. I’m glad you enjoyed it. : )

  3. Lorraine Nelson - Author October 17, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    Wow! What an excellent chapter! You’ve nailed it for character and conflict. The dialogue is engaging and the entire chapter reeks of emotion. Well done!

    • Tina Vaughn October 17, 2011 at 6:44 am #

      Thanks so much, Lorraine.
      I really appreciate your support.
      I’m glad you like it. : )

  4. Lindsey October 18, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    LOVE IT!!!

  5. Madeline Ash October 20, 2011 at 4:02 am #

    Tina, that was brilliant. Punchy, evocative and very sexy. I could feel the sexual tension between them, Emily’s hurt at being abandoned ten years ago, and Ryan’s bitterness towards his father. I am SO curious to know why he left, considering nothing huge seemed to go wrong in their relationship. I also loved the hint of her fostered childhood, it’s intriguing and I can’t wait to find out more about this conflict that has shaped her.

    Congratulations on getting into round 2, and good luck with the next round! I would definitely read on (hooked from start to finish – LOVED the opening sentence), and am sure I’ll get the chance to do so 🙂

    • Tina Vaughn October 20, 2011 at 7:20 am #

      Madeline:
      Thanks so much for taking the time to read the chapter, and I’m ecstatic that you enjoyed it. : )

  6. Lacey Devlin October 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    Fabulous chapter! Loved your killer first line and the chemistry. Congrats on getting into round 2, Tina! Good luck!

    • Tina Vaughn October 20, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

      Thanks so much, Lacey!
      I’m glad you liked the chapter, and I appreciate the good wishes. : )

  7. maya blake October 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    You had me hooked from the first line! Fabulous story!
    The very best of luck, Tina 🙂

    • Tina Vaughn October 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

      Maya:
      Thanks so much for reading my chapter.
      I appreciate your encouragement and am glad you liked it. : )

  8. Catherine October 27, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    Tina-
    This is so awesome!

  9. Anne MacFarlane October 27, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    Loved this, Tina. Great characters and sexual tension. Lots of hints at the past which makes me want to read more…

    • Tina Vaughn October 27, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading, Anne. I’m glad you’d like to read more. : )

  10. Mattie Vaughn October 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    It was very good and I loved it, Keep writing, And good luck.

    Mattie.

    • Tina Vaughn October 27, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

      Thank you! I will definitely keep writing. : )

  11. Sara Sutevski October 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    More More…I want to read more. Good writing.

    • Tina Vaughn October 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Thank you so much, Sara! : )
      I appreciate your support, and I’m glad you enjoyed the chapter.

  12. Sophia October 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    It was very good and I loved it. post more if you can :)~

  13. Heather October 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    Tina, Just as I expected, wonderful! I can’t wait to read more. Good Luck!

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