Book 3: Birch Crossing
She was like an angel in the night.
Harlan couldn’t take his gaze off Emma as he cut the engine, letting his boat drift in toward her dock. He’d been out for one last tour of the lake, one last night to remember the town that he’d made his home for the last five years. He’d expected to feel relief, but he hadn’t. He’d felt strangely melancholy, as if he was leaving before he was supposed to. Instinct had taken him past Emma’s small cabin, as he’d done on so many other sleepless nights.
This time, for the first time in two years, she’d been outside, even though it was past midnight. The way she’d been huddled up in that huge blanket had caught his attention, as if she were a broken bird stranded on land. He hadn’t intended to approach. Hadn’t planned to say anything. But the boat had drifted right toward her anyway.
“Harlan?” She grabbed the bow of the boat as it bumped her dock, jerking him back to the present.
He caught one of the pilings on her dock, anchoring the boat as the blanket slid off her shoulders. In the moonlight, he could tell she was wearing a white tank top with straps so thin they looked like they would snap under the faintest breeze. Her black shorts were boldly short, revealing so much more leg than he’d ever seen from the woman who wore long skirts and blue jeans every day of her life, or at least on every day that he’d seen her. Her hair was down, tangled around her shoulders, as if it were caressing the skin she’d so carelessly exposed to the night.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice was throaty and raw, and he realized she’d been crying.
“Couldn’t sleep.” He leaned on the piling, not daring to get out of the boat, not when the need to play the hero was pulsing through him so strongly. All he could think of was folding her into his arms and chasing away the demons haunting her. “You?”
“Same.” She hugged herself, her huge eyes searching his. The moonlight cast dark shadows on her face, hollowing out her eyes and her cheeks.
“Want a ride?” He asked the question without intending to, but found himself holding his breath while it sat in the air, waiting for her response.
He shrugged. “Nowhere. I’m just driving.”
She looked back at her cabin. “I was just—”
“Crying. I know. Going back inside will help, do you think? Or maybe getting the hell away from life for twenty minutes would be better?”
Defiance flared in her eyes, and her shoulders seemed to lift. Without a word, she grabbed the corner of his windshield and set her bare foot on the edge of his boat. Silently, he held out his hand to the woman he’d never touched in all the years he’d known her, except for last night. She met his gaze, and then set her hand in his.
Jesus. Her skin was like the softest silk, decadent in its fragility, tempting in its strength. He closed his fingers around hers and helped her into his boat. Her hip slid against his side as she stepped in, and electricity sizzled through him.
She caught her breath, glancing at him as she moved away to sit in the passenger seat.
Harlan said nothing. He had no idea what to say. Not to her. Not to this woman. Not in this moment. So, instead, he restarted the boat, backed up until he was clear of her dock, and then unleashed the throttle. The boat leapt forward, slicing through the water with a boldness that was probably irresponsible in the dark.
But he knew the lake, every inch of it, and the moonlight was bright enough to guide him.
He didn’t feel like being careful. Not tonight. Tonight he wanted wind. He wanted water. He wanted freedom.
And he wanted the woman sitting in his boat.
A woman he had no right to want.
A woman who had haunted his dreams since the moment he’d first met her.
As if feeling the intensity of his gaze, Emma glanced over at him. The moment she saw the expression on his face, her face paled in the moonlight, and she sucked in her breath.
Shit. She knew now how much he burned for her. His face had given it away.
She jerked her gaze off his and stared across the lake, not acknowledging what had just happened.
But she knew. Son of a bitch, she knew.
The boat ride had just changed irrevocably.