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Turn It Up by Inez Kelley (1)

Chapter One

 

“Did you just have an orgasm?”

Charlie’s pink tongue darted over her lips, whisking away the trace of white. A satisfied moan caressed the night. “Better…a s’morgasm.” She bit into the s’more and delight softened her face.

Something akin to jealousy drilled into Bastian’s gut. Things hardened further south for him. Snaps and pops from the small fire filled the silence. Beyond the tree line, another campsite blared hillbilly rock. The throb of music was too low to make out, but it vibrated the night with bass.

Another catlike purr emanated deep in her throat.

“All right, that’s enough. Much more of that and I’ll have to slap a triple-X rating on the marshmallow bag.”

Charlie held out her treat with sugary flirtation. “Want a bite?”

He gave her no warning. He leaned close and snagged the entire offering with snapping teeth.

“Hey! You thief. That was mine.” She huffed with her indignation. The gooey sweetness made it hard to smirk but he did his best, wiggling his eyebrows at her. “Typical man, get a quick s’morgasm and leave a woman wanting.”

“There’s an entire bag of marshmallows left. Have all the s’morgasms you want,” he teased around the mouthful.

Her bottom lip shot out with a pout as she grabbed the pack of graham crackers from his fingers. “I’m not sharing with you anymore.”

“Then make me one of my own.”

She cocked her head. “Do I look like your mother?”

“If my mother had looked like you, I’d have gladly been a mama’s boy.”

The things her laugh did to him were illegal in twelve states. What should have been illegal was the way her faded cutoffs hugged her ass. She looked like Betty Boop in mutilated Levis. There was no way a whisper of air could fit between her skin and the denim, but his fingers would love to try. He fisted them tight to maintain control. Down, boy.

Swallowing more than chocolate and graham cracker, he pulled his eyes from her behind. “Was there peanut butter in that?”

She speared two marshmallows onto the stick he’d sharpened for her. “Yep. Reese’s Cups instead of Hershey Bars—the difference between a s’more and a s’morgasm.”

“Leave it to you to find a way to make camping sexual.” Bastian shook his head with a grin.

Charlie made everything sexual. Some women turned heads. Charlie Pierce turned entire bodies. More than one man had done a complete one-eighty as she walked down the street. She was a siren and a vixen without apology. Her sapphire eyes stared straight at a man, daring him: if you want to look, then look your fill.

No one knew him better and he couldn’t imagine his life without her. He loved her to distraction.

He wanted her with an obsession.

He treasured her like Fort Knox.

He was in hard-on hell.

She was his best friend, his platonic, nonsexual, do-or-die-for buddy.

Somewhere along the line, he’d fallen in love with her. It didn’t matter that she had a boyfriend. It didn’t matter that she’d never looked at him that way. Nothing mattered except she’d stolen his heart and made him feel alive. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it except love her in silence.

Long, graceful fingers smoothed a stray dark hair from her face and she caught his gaze. The smile she beamed at him outshone the campfire behind her and warmed his heart with more heat. “Just to be a brat I should drop yours in the dirt.”

“Try it,” he growled. “And you’ll be sleeping in the dirt while I hog the tent.”

“Better than your knees nailing me in the ass again.”

She stuck out her tongue. The image of that tongue sliding along his skin created an immediate need for a readjustment, but he waited until her back was turned before situating his semi-erection more comfortably. It wasn’t his knees he wanted to nail her with.

A log snapped in the campfire, sending a flurry of glowing embers shooting into the air, and she jumped back slightly. She was like those fire bits reaching high into the night, unable to be held by the blaze below. A sexual spark crackled inside Charlie, infusing everyone around her. Well, everyone with a penis, although Bastian had seen several women come to life, too. Flirtation, innuendo and teasing erupted whenever she entered a room.

Something else twitched, threatening to erupt if she didn’t move her fanny out of his face.

“Here. Careful, it’s hot.” Handing him a sticky, oozing square, she settled beside him cross-legged in the hard-packed dirt and bit into her s’morgasm. This time, she didn’t moan, allowing his libido to get shoved down into submission.

Friendship Commandments:

Do not lust after your best friend like a horny teenager.

Do not imagine her naked.

Do not dream about her skin next to yours.

Do not think about crossing that invisible unspoken barrier.

Do not wonder what she’d do if you just kissed her marshmallowy mouth.

Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.

“Don’t do it,” she warned.

His eyes snapped to hers. “Don’t do what?”

“Don’t bite it like that. It’s going to squish out and make a mess.”

Hiding a sigh of relief, he ate the too-sweet and too-rich snack because she’d made it. Charlie pulled a manila folder out of her giant tapestry bag and he groaned around squishy sugar. “No, no work. You promised me forty-eight hours of absolute laziness. I’ve got nearly twenty-four left.”

“Five minutes, you big whiner. We just have to pick some topics for the next couple shows so I can do the promos tomorrow night and then we’re done. Okay?”

“When are you going to run them by Nathan?”

Charlie gagged exaggeratedly. “Please. Nathan wouldn’t know sexy if it bit him in his droopy, flat ass. I just tell him he approved it in the staff meeting. He acts like he remembers to cover the fact he’s clueless.”

A snarl itched inside his throat. “Is he still trying to look down your shirt every meeting?”

“Nah, he stopped that once I started muttering ‘sexual harassment lawsuit’ under my breath.” A wicked light glimmered in her eyes. “I also mentioned you have a jealous streak and you’re a boxer.”

He snorted. “Since when?”

“Hey, you’re protective of me. And you box all the time in the gym.”

“I box for cardio, not as a profession.”

“So I didn’t lie. If he misunderstood…”

“But you let him think we’re sleeping together?”

“Everybody thinks we’re sleeping together.” One brow arched and she glanced at the tent. “And technically, we are.”

Technically. In a tent. In separate sleeping bags. Yeah, that was as close to her as he was going to get, which really sucked. He rubbed his forehead to hide his sigh. “You’re a tease.”

“I am not,” she quipped. “I deliver…when I want to. Help me, Bastian, please?”

How anyone could say no to those big pleading eyes of hers, he’d never know. She could ask him to walk off a cliff and he’d do it, buck naked and singing “Yankee Doodle.” But he couldn’t let her know that. He blew out an inflated sigh and leaned back against the log he was using as a backrest. “Fine, five minutes. I’m timing you. Go.”

She wrinkled her nose in his direction, opened the folder and shuffled some papers. “Oral sex?”

“Works for me.”

“Virginity?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Could you handle a show on homosexuality?”

“I’ve got no problem with that.”

“Pillow talk?”

“Okay.”

“BDSM?”

“Mmm, hold off on that and let me do some research, okay?”

“All right, I’ll put that on the back burner. What about latex love?”

“If you’re talking condoms, no problem. But not the pseudo-rubber-fetish shit.”

“Title change then, gotcha. Fantasies?”

“No, absolutely not.” Head shaking emphatically, he grabbed for his bottle. The last bit of sweetness got washed down with a swallow of lukewarm beer.

“Why not?”

“Because there are some twisted shits out there and I don’t want to hear about it. Let them keep their dreams of well-endowed mangy mutts and Cool Whip to themselves.”

Her giggle tickled his ear as she bumped his shoulder in camaraderie. How in the world had she wrangled him into working with her again? Oh, that’s right, she asked with those big blue eyes and I caved.

It started when she’d roped him into guest speaking on her late-night radio talk show. It had seemed harmless enough at the time. Their natural flirty interaction was such a hit with listeners, she’d approached him about co-hosting a sex-oriented talk show with her. As a self-professed sex expert, she would handle most of the questions and suggestions, and he would simply be along for medical backup.

Now he had a stupid radio pseudonym and two-hour time slot three nights a week. Let’s Talk about Sex with Dr. Hot and the Honeypot was one of the fastest-growing radio shows in the tristate area. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 p.m.until 1 a.m. he flirted with Charlie on the air and got paid for it. Not a bad gig.

But he still wasn’t listening to a bunch of losers describe weird dog fantasies.

“I got an email from WTLG in Boston about the job.”

Bastian made sure not a single emotion leaked onto his face. “Oh yeah, what’d they say?”

“Thanks but no thanks, basically.” Charlie shrugged. “I can’t see me in Boston anyway. Too stuffy for smutty me.”

“You’d do great anywhere.” He breathed a sigh of relief. Her wings were itching to spread wide and fly. But as much as he wanted to watch her soar, he hated the thought of her flying away from him. “Any other prospects on the horizon?”

“A few résumés are still out. Oh, look, the proof sheet for the promo shots came back. Help me pick one for the web page.”

She leaned in close with the photo sheet. Bastian inhaled her tangy scent and steeled his eyes not to stray to her face. He glued them on the pictures in her hand instead but didn’t see anything but a haze of lusty red. At random, he tapped one small square. “That one.”

“Really? The one of me in your lap? I like the one where we’re back to back. It looks more professional.”

Well, he’d liked the pose when they were in it. Maybe it wasn’t the most professional, though. This was a side job to him, a fun bit of extra income and time spent with her. For Charlie, this was her career. Professionalism meant a great deal to her, and he respected her for it.

Focusing on the sample pictures with more interest, he agreed. Back to back was the best shot. WTXT’s Dr. Hot and the Honeypot stared out at him, both smiling for the camera. He wore plain blue scrubs, red stethoscope around his neck, arms crossed. Charlie, decked out in full dominatrix leather, held a similar pose, a wicked-looking riding crop in her hands.

He’d spent a good portion of that shoot visualizing gunshot wounds to avoid getting an erection no scrub pants could hide. Then the damn photographer had told them to have fun and goof off while he snapped candids. Charlie had popped onto his lap and something else had popped up for Bastian.

So much for gruesome image therapy.

But they’d laughed a lot and gotten some silly shots as well. Like the one where he was flat on his stomach, Charlie perched triumphantly on his back. Or where he’d scooped her up and she’d screamed, arms clinging to his neck. There was even one where she had her chin resting on her hands on top of his head. In those shots, she exuded pure joy.

Seeing her in costume again played havoc with his raging libido. It fueled his imagination and he risked a glance at her. “Did you buy that outfit?”

And how far away is Halloween?

Her laugh slid over his skin like melted cream. “No. I just rented it for the shoot. But the costumes get the message across, I think. You, medicine man, me, sex kitten.”

God, wouldn’t he love to make her purr. “That they do.”

“It was like playing dress-up. We had fun that day.” Her soft voice was memory-laced and she pressed her cheek to his arm.

“Yeah.”

Comfortable silence fell. She gathered up the papers and proof sheet, tucking everything back in the folder with great care. One of the best things about spending time with her was that she didn’t feel the need to fill every second with empty chatter. The verbal downtime allowed the sounds of the campground to come alive. Insects whirled and chirped, something small ran through the underbrush and, in the distance, a vehicle rumbled. Bastian wished the peace of the night could soothe his mind as it did his body.

He watched her shiver once, the night air beyond the fire’s warmth still clinging to spring dampness. Her hardened nipples were visible through her knit top. He snagged his sweatshirt from the log and tossed it in her direction. She caught it with a grin, tugged it over her head and pulled it down, the length hiding her shorts. She looked naked under the hooded fleece, and his thighs clenched.

Instant woody.

The high-pitched tone of Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Witch Doctor” rang out from his cell inside the tent. He didn’t make a move.

“You aren’t going to answer?”

He shook his head. He wasn’t on call and as far as he was concerned nothing was important enough to make him stand up at this minute. The helium-sucking voices shut off.

Open cooler lid in her hand, Charlie wordlessly offered him another beer. He declined but she snagged the church key hanging on the Igloo’s handle and popped a cap off one for herself, tossing the bottle cap back into the ice. She sat across the fire, his sweatshirt pulled over her knees. Other than her face, every inch of her flesh was now covered and he sent a silent thankful prayer to the Friendship Gods.

“What’s your favorite sexual position, Bastian?”

Too soon. “Where in the hell do you come up with these questions?” Even after six years, she never failed to surprise him.

“Uh, tomorrow’s show, ‘Assuming the Position,’ remember? I just thought it’d be a good idea to go over some of our answers since the topic is bound to get a bit touchy.”

She did have a point. They often semi-rehearsed their supposed off-the-cuff answers. It added more strength to her professional demeanor. His, too, he supposed, but still, never ask a man with a hard-on what position he likes best. It was cruel and malicious torture.

“You first,” he hedged, earning a sly grin. She liked to think he was shy at times, and he had no problem allowing that.

“I like them all. But I guess, if I had to pick, I’d go with cowgirl.”

Charlie, bare-breasted above him, hips rising and falling. Great, another image to flush out of my head. Think abscessed diabetic ulcers. “Why?”

Her shoulders shrugged and she burrowed deeper into his shirt. “I like control, no secret there. I bet I can guess yours.”

The tease lifted his eyebrows. “Okay, go for it.”

“You’re the old-fashioned type, so I’ll guess…missionary.”

She knew him too damn well. “Guilty as charged. I like to see my lover’s eyes looking up at me.”

“Oooh, how romantic,” she purred. “And the fact you get to control everything has nothing to do with it.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Topping is the power position. You set the pace, the depth, the subtle shifts that prolong things.”

“Tell you what, Honey, next time you sit on my lap, I’ll let you prolong anything you want.”

His flirt hung heavy but she laughed it off. Calling her by her radio persona insulated him. This was Doc teasing Honey, not Bastian flirting with Charlie, at least to her.

“In your imagination, Doc.” She saluted him with her bottle. “And speaking of imagination, next week’s show on self-love—you okay with that? Some men get twitchy.”

“Yep. Masturbation is a normal human behavior. I’ll have all my facts in order, don’t you worry.” Saucy Doc Hot took hold of his tongue and ran with his thoughts before his brain could catch it. “How’s the self-love treating you lately, Honey?”

Cornflower eyes widened before narrowing in challenge. This banter was what made their show spicy and successful.

“Just fine, Doc. How about you? You handling everything all right?”

His cheeks warmed but he never dropped his gaze. “Been a little lax lately, too many ER shifts and not enough sleep.”

“Tsk-tsk-tsk. You can’t neglect yourself. All work and no self-play makes Doc a grumpy boy. Find a few minutes to take care of business, will you?” A vampish smile curled seductively. “Let me know if you need a hand.”

“You’d need both. So how long has it been for you, Honey?”

Her eyes dropped to her beer before rising. Undiluted sexual energy zapped between them. A lump the size of a Volkswagen formed in his throat when her teeth caught her lower lip. The vehicle revved when she brought the bottle to her mouth, wet tongue gliding along the rim.

“This morning.”

The Volkswagen spun tires, speeding to his gut. He wasn’t sure what fueled it, her tongue or her words. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the two-man tent.

“In there? This morning? Where was I?”

“Beside me. Asleep.”

Shock and excitement raced through him, tightening his chest and his shorts. She had masturbated inches from him and he’d slept through it? Life was cruel. At this rate, he was going to get a refresher course in self-love before the night was over, especially if she didn’t stop tonguing that damn bottle.

Bastian couldn’t think but Doc grabbed control. “You should’ve woken me up, Honey.”

“Now why would I ruin a perfectly good fantasy by waking you up? Hands Solo was doing just fine by his lonesome.”

His hearty laugh exploded, easing the lustful grip around his balls. “Hands Solo? That’s bad, even for you.”

She shrugged sheepishly. “I had to try. It sounded better in my head. But young Harrison Ford was a hottie. That Star Wars marathon we watched last week got everything all juiced up.”

Still laughing at her awful wordplay, he nearly missed her question.

“Who were you thinking of your last solo playtime?”

Clear memory slammed into his mind. The sound died in his throat and he yanked his gaze to the flame. No way was he telling her that, best friend or not.

A feminine lilt teased him. “I do love a man who blushes. Come on, ’fess up. No secrets, remember?”

“Private thoughts aren’t secrets.” Avoidance only made his face hotter, and sweat formed on his brow.

“Se-bas-ti-an,” she singsonged, drawing his name out for four long musical tones. “Okay, let me try to guess. Uh, Marianne?”

The dour nurse manager was so far from his fantasy he simply glared at her.

“Guess not. Bridgette?”

His deep inhale was noisy. He hadn’t thought about Bridgette in over a year. Charlie needed to back off.

She just arched one brow at him. “Hmm, Suzanne?”

He bit his tongue.

“Okay, wrong. Lauren?”

That didn’t even warrant a scowl so he ignored her.

“Maybe Tyson then?”

Now she was just being a brat. “Don’t go there.”

“What? Some men have same-gender fantasies.”

“It was you, Charlie, okay? You.”

 

 

He was adorable when embarrassed. Eyes closed tight, he twitched his nose and turned his head to the side, bottom lip tucked beneath his teeth. For all Doc’s on-air bluster, Bastian was a quiet man, preferring the backstage.

“It’s okay.” She kept her voice gentle, soothing. “Been there, done that myself.”

His head whipped back to hers, and his deep brown eyes fixed her with a stunned look. “You’ve thought of me before…while masturbating?”

“Of course. It’s only natural to wonder, to imagine, after all this time. We do talk about sex daily. I think I’d be hurt if you hadn’t thought of me at least once or twice. Fantasies are just fantasies. It’s normal, don’t worry about it.”

For a long time, he studied her and she let him, not dropping her gaze. Charlie wanted him to know she wasn’t offended or bothered by his admission. Nor was she looking for more from him. She didn’t ever want anything to damage what they had. Bastian was the most important person in her life.

“Charlie, have you ever wondered what might have happened if I wasn’t married when we met?”

She loved his voice, so deep and rich, with just enough silk in it to make her quiver. It carried across the radio waves like water in a brook. Just a word or a phrase in his gilded tone and she wanted to melt like butter in July.

He was the poster child for the All-American classic male. One look told you his life story. Football hero, baseball captain, Young Republican’s Club and med school whiz. He’d married his college sorority-sweetheart and set out to live the picture-perfect life.

But nobody was perfect and dreams crumbled. Charlie had been there when his did and helped him hold it together. That was what a friend did. That and they never crossed that invisible boundary.

Had she wondered what might have happened if he’d been single? No, she’d always known.

“It’s pretty easy to figure out. We’d have become sizzling hot but temporary lovers and missed out on something really great. The chemistry’s always been there. But lovers are a dime a dozen. Friends that last are priceless.”

“Maybe we would’ve been different.”

Jazz. His voice was jazz, invoking images of steamy nights, moist skin and rolling hips. Had she fantasized about him? Hell, yeah. Long ago she’d trained herself to stop actively imagining his hands on her bare skin or his mouth pressed to hers. Snippets and flashes snuck in, of course, but she always shrugged them off. Being his lifelong friend meant more to her than getting naked and sweaty for a while.

Bastian wanted a woman forever. It was in his makeup, his genes. Charlie didn’t do forever where men were concerned.

She preferred hard, intense sex and lots of it. Sex had intrigued her from her first time with Bobby Mason in his father’s Ford. It lacked everything she’d thought it would be. So she set out to discover why. What she’d learned fascinated her, empowered her, awed her. Sex made the world go ’round, and Charlie absorbed every facet. Sex was fun. It was exhilarating. It was temporary.

Her best friend was permanent.

“What might have been doesn’t matter now. You were married and off-limits so we became friends instead. Besides, you mean more to me than any sexual fling ever could. You’re my best friend, the best friend I’ve ever had. That’s harder to find than any piece of ass. I love you, Bastian.”

Lines crinkled around his eyes with his gentle smile. She’d never said these words aloud but knew he knew them. She knew she meant the same to him. They were rare and nothing could make her risk that. But still, a girl could fantasize. In color.

When he jerked his head, a silent invitation to join him, she leaped up and threw herself in his arms. Bastian gave the best hugs. Not wimpy and soft as if she’d break or hard and crushing like she was a grape to be squished. He never tried to cop a feel or worried if he brushed her breasts. He just hugged her. It was one of her favorite things about him.

His lips skimmed her brow, just enough to let her know he loved her back.

Sitting between his knees, she offered him her beer. He took a swig and passed it back before propping his chin on her skull. She snuggled into his chest and sighed. This felt good.

“Did I tell you Lisa came into the ER yesterday before I got off duty?” Precise and cautious above her head, his words bleached away some of the coziness.

She couched her response in wariness. “No, you didn’t mention it. Was she sick?”

“No, she was in labor.”

Charlie winced. “Ouch.”

“Yeah. Her new husband brought her in. Craig sent them up to L&D.”

Maybe no one else in the world would have heard the traces of pain hidden in his voice, but Charlie did. She shifted until her back leaned on one of his bent knees. She searched his face, one hand straying to his chest. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Just because I couldn’t give her kids doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have them. She was in pain but excited, you know? I hadn’t seen that kind of…joy on her face in a long, long time.”

He removed her hand from his shirt, gripping it in a tight clench. Bastian didn’t talk about his sterility much, and when he did, she let him set the boundaries. She knew the basics, a bit more than the basics, and why his marriage had failed. She’d suffered through his bouts of proving his masculinity, listened to his philosophical ramblings on “real men,” flat-out told him when he was being a crybaby.

He’d said she was the only one with balls enough to do that. She’d crowed and agreed—she’d kick his ass whenever he needed it. Now he didn’t need kicking, he needed space. The hardest part of being friends was knowing when to back off. His silence was her cue to change the subject.

“Do you think you’ll ever get married again?”

“I hope so. I liked being married.”

Charlie wanted to keep him talking, to give him space from the ache she knew never fully left him. “Why? What did you like about it?”

“Everything. I liked feeling I belonged to someone, that someone belonged to me alone. I liked having someone know me well enough to finish my thoughts. I liked knowing I had a date for every major occasion without calling someone. I liked waking up Sunday mornings and smelling her hair before I fell back to sleep.”

Each sentence seemed to lighten his mood so the sparkle in his eye when he looked at her was no surprise.

“I liked rolling over in the middle of the night, knowing if I rubbed her ass right, I’d get lucky. I liked regular sex without latex.” He chuckled on the last line. “I really miss regular sex. At this point, I just really miss sex.”

“Been a while, has it?” Charlie teased.

“Oh God, what year is it?” She laughed and he grinned at her. “I don’t know, fourteen, fifteen months or so.”

“Damn, you need to get laid.”

“You’re telling me.” Pushing back, he slid his rump up onto the log, towering over her. Charlie tucked her knees back under the sweatshirt hem and wrapped her arms around them. The firelight played over his face. He didn’t fool her. If he wanted sex he could get it without batting an eyelash. For some reason, he’d taken himself off the market.

“Come on, there has to be one cute little nurse willing to pass a few nights with a single handsome doctor in that big hospital.”

“Maybe. You’re missing the point. I miss relationship sex, not one-night-stand sex. A one-night stand I can get anytime. I want more.”

“So go find it.” Possessiveness welled inside her but she stifled it quickly. She couldn’t keep him all to herself. That was selfish. He had a right to find a partner, a love. But she hated sharing him again.

The look he settled on her was contemplative, searching. “I’m thinking about it.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

His snort was sardonic. “Why not? You already know my favorite sexual position and what I fantasize about.”

“It’s about your marriage…and your sex life with Lisa.”

Golden-brown eyes snapped to hers, guarded emotion shimmering in the fire’s glow. This was an area she had never broached. His slow nod screamed his trust.

“You two were together a long time. How many years?”

“Seven. And nearly four before that, so close to eleven total. Why?”

She dropped her eyes to his ankle, burying her fists in the sweatshirt sleeves. “Did sex get boring?”

Above her shoulder, his chest rose with his drawn breath as he considered her question. She loved how he never blew off her off-the-wall inquiries. He considered every one important. He treated her as if she was important.

“I don’t know if I’d have called it boring. Predictable, maybe. Comfortable.” He rubbed his brow harshly, as if a pain had slammed into his skull. “Then at the end, it was more—I guess I was wrapped up in trying to prove I was still man enough—It wasn’t often but it was…empty.”

“You went a little pussy-crazy after the divorce.”

He rolled his eyes with a soft groan. “You have no idea how much of a man’s identity is wrapped up in his dick, all right? Being told you’re sterile is like invisible castration. Suddenly you’re not a real man. Some guys turn to alcohol or drugs, others get into fights or jump out of airplanes, anything to prove they’re masculine enough despite their sissy-ass sperm counts. So yeah, I bed-hopped a while. I’m not proud of it.”

“Did you ever bed-hop before the divorce was final?”

“No.”

“Not even when you were—”

“I did not cheat on Lisa in any way, shape or form, okay?”

“Did you tell her you kissed me?”

His lids closed and his breath stilled. Tension seeped into each muscle before he leaned away from her.

The first year they’d known each other, Lisa had thrown a huge Christmas party. Bastian arrived late, his hospital rotation running behind. Lisa had been livid. Their argument was quiet and low-key, but Charlie had noticed. She’d also noticed Bastian drinking more than usual.

From what she’d seen and what he’d told her, Charlie knew they were having problems. But she never expected him to catch her under the mistletoe for more than a casual peck. His tongue had tasted of whiskey and, if she was honest, did naughty things to her senses. He’d pulled back, eyes wide in horror, apologized and sought out his wife all in the same breath.

Less than a month later, Lisa had him served with divorce papers.

“It shouldn’t have happened. It was a bad time. I felt like half a man and was trying to…I don’t know. I was drunk and I made a mistake.”

“I know, that’s why I’ve never brought it up. But you didn’t tell her, did you?”

His head bowed and a sigh caressed her cheek. “No. It would’ve just hurt her. We were having enough trouble without adding that.”

“So you did kind of cheat.”

Confusion deepened in his eyes as he brought one hand to stroke her hair. As an only child, she’d always taken the move as one an older brother would bestow on a little sister. It made her feel cherished.

“What’s going on? Why all the questions about cheating? Do you think Adam’s cheating on you?”

The gray fleece crept up and she took the time to pull her knees tighter to her chest and smooth the soft cotton over her legs before replying. “You could say that. I dumped him after I walked in on him and his assistant Thursday.”

“That son of a bitch!” Each line of his body jerked into a seated protective stance. She liked that he was concerned for her. He’d hated Adam, calling him a variety of names despite her objections. Those objections had never been very strenuous. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Oh, I had plenty to say to him. Mostly that he couldn’t find my clit if it was painted neon orange and that I faked every orgasm.” Bastian’s lips twitched but he tightened his mouth. Charlie gave him a small grin. “Honestly, I just feel stupid and angry at myself. I meant to tell you Friday but I forgot. That ought to tell you something.”

“What flavor?” Bastian asked, still hiding his smile.

She had a breakup routine. Very few people knew about the ritual. Bastian, of course, did. After every breakup, she drowned her sorrows in ice cream, picking a flavor on a personal rating scale. The lowest any man had scored was low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt.

“Just strawberry. And I didn’t finish it.”

“Good, he was an asshole.” Honey-blond hair fell over his eyes and he pushed it back before returning his hand to her head. “Still, four months, right? You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, which means he’s probably right.” At Bastian’s quizzical frown, she shrugged. “He called me a coldhearted bitch.”

Hard, firm fingers turned her chin to his face. “You are not coldhearted. A bitch, yes, you can be, but you take pride in that. There’s nothing cold about you. You’re the hottest, most vibrant woman I know.”

Her fingers curled around his, tugging them from her face. “Adam’s right. I didn’t care the way I should have. He was just something to fill time. I couldn’t be myself with him, you know? With anyone really, except you. They either want the Honeypot twenty-four/seven or get embarrassed by who I am. I can’t just be me. I have to be ‘on.’”

A small scar ran down one side of his knee, tiny dots alongside it. Stitches, she guessed, a long time ago. She’d have to ask him about it.

“Men just want to screw me and women avoid me, unless they want me too. No one wants to really know plain old Charlie. It takes too much time to trust them and when I think I can, everything’s gone stale. That’s why I asked about you and Lisa. I just don’t think I’m cut out for long-term monogamy. Sex I can do, that love stuff…nah, not good at that.”

“Stop pretending you’re a slut. You use more discrimination than some men I know when taking a lover.”

“But I never keep them for long, do I?”

Bastian was quiet for a long time. Finally he leaned down and tapped her foot with one long finger. “How long have you had these ugly things?”

“My camping sneakers? I don’t know. Why?”

“You’ve worn them every single time we’ve come up here. You even wore them in the lake last summer. They have holes in them and they’re frayed and stained. Why don’t you just throw them away and get a new pair?”

She tucked her feet deeper under the sweatshirt hem as if he might snatch them off her feet. “I love these shoes! They’re broken in and fit my feet perfectly, even my crooked little toe. They’re comfortable.”

“What about your Firebird? The thing is barely legal and borderline safe. Your insurance is through the roof and you can’t even afford to have it painted yet. Why don’t you just sell it?”

She smacked his arm. “No way! I damn near hocked my soul to buy that car. And I’m enjoying restoring it. Finding each piece is like…damn, it’s better than sex at times. I love that car.”

“Exactly.” He smiled. “When you fall in love with something, you don’t want to let it go. Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s yours. You just haven’t met the right guy yet. Give it time.”

She rose up on her knees and glared at him. “You really need to get laid if you’re comparing sex to old shoes and cars.”

Those great strong arms she loved wrapped around her shoulders, squeezing tight. His chest rumbled with his soft laughter and she laid her head on it, delighting in the vibrations. He smelled of wood smoke and fresh air and she fought the urge to rub her nose into his shirt.

Against her ear, his low words echoed. “You honestly faked every orgasm?”

“Yep. Every single one.”

“He must’ve been an idiot. How could he not have known?”

“Oh please, every man thinks they know when a woman’s faking. If a woman has any acting ability, men have no clue.”

His chest stilled. “I’d like to think I know.”

“You keep telling yourself that.” She patted his stomach with a broad smile.

“Isn’t faking it a lie?”

Charlie shrugged. “I guess you could look at it like that. But who’s really getting hurt? Not the guy. If anything, he’s getting protected from either insult or damage to his fragile male ego.”

The corners of his mouth curved down. “The male ego would be a lot stronger if women would be honest and tell us what they want rather than lying back and pretending.”

“Good theory but in practice, it bites. Men and directions are like milk and pickles. They don’t mix. Hey, let’s add that to the show lineup.”

He scowled but nodded. “Fine. I think you’ll find out most men would rather be told or shown what to do rather than be lied to.”

“Touch a nerve?”

“Not like you think. I just don’t like being lied to in any way.”

“Hey.” She ran one hand down the side of his face, the smooth cheek bringing a smile to her lips. He hated his beard and shaved even while camping. “Granted we’re not talking faked orgasms here, but I’ve never lied to you. You do know that, right?”

“Good. And I haven’t lied to you, not once.”

“Then we’re good. No lies, no hidden agendas and no secrets.”

Something flickered in his gaze before his eyes shifted away. Although he brought them right back to her face, she’d seen the secret cross his mind and it chilled her. Secrets led to lies and lies to pain.

Forced past a hollow ache, her words were soft. “Or maybe there is a secret?”

His mouth opened to protest but she refused to drop her knowing look. Slowly, he lowered his lids and sighed. His Adam’s apple jumped with his swallow but he didn’t turn away. When he opened his eyes, they burned her with their intensity.

“I need to keep this secret, okay? I’ll tell you one day, but not now.”

“Why?”

“It’s just…look, know how I didn’t tell Lisa about that Christmas kiss? It’s like that. It would serve no purpose.”

He hadn’t told Lisa about a drunken pass because he was protecting his wife from hurt. That was Bastian—protective, possessive and so stuck in the 1950s he occasionally forgot a woman could handle ugly truths. What was he trying to protect her from?

“What? You have another best friend hidden somewhere beneath the mistletoe?” She tried to tease but it stuck in her throat. Bastian had never kept anything from her before.

“Of course not. I just want to think some things through for a while, that’s all. Trust me?”

“I do trust you. I’m just sorry you feel like you can’t trust me.”

Injury flashed on his face, his jaw going slack and lines appearing between his brows. “Damn it, I do trust you, more than anyone. I just can’t…Let me work through this.”

The twinge of disappointment in her chest drew her lips down. After all the embarrassing and personal things they’d shared, this secret must be important.

Apparently she wasn’t important enough to share this secret with, however. He was shutting her out for the first time. He’d told her of his infertility, his anger at his brother’s drug addiction, his doubts about his own ability as a doctor. She’d lived every minute of his divorce with him, holding him as his tears fell. He’d even had her do some of his banking when he was too busy, so she knew all his passwords. She even knew that he had a covert fascination with Chinese mythology.

This secret hurt.

A small brick was laid, the foundation to wall off her heart against the one man she never thought she’d need protection from. Easing from his touch, she nodded. “Sure. Whatever you need to do. I understand.”

His warm hands ran down her arms. “No, you don’t. You’re pulling back, I can feel it.”

“You do what you have to. And I’ll do what I have to.”

“Don’t push me away. Please.”

Words wouldn’t come so she just looked at him. Tawny gold brows dipped in concern. His exasperated exhale was loud and forceful though his curse was soft. “Goddamn it, Charlie.”

He kissed her.

His lips captured hers, sliding across them before his tongue slipped past her surprised gasp. Time skidded to a halt. This kiss was far more than it had been years ago under the mistletoe. There was no hesitancy, no barriers, no rush. Just his mouth on hers, tempting her to join him. The forbidden intimacy surged through her veins. It blanked her mind as she allowed her tongue to stroke back, giving even as he took. Her hands found his chest of their own volition. One caress and his kiss deepened. Marshmallow, peanut butter and the unfamiliar taste of Bastian, everything blended together into a high-octane cocktail of sensuality. It melted her bones and dissolved her mind.

His hand slid to her hair, pulling her closer. A moan buried in her throat threatened to sound. He felt so good, so right…and so wrong. Something inside her stood up and screamed in a high-pitched wail. It pierced her brain like a railroad spike, jabbing with cold, prickly pain.

This was wrong.

This was Bastian.

She was kissing her best friend like a lover.

Yanking away, she sat back on her heels. Both their breaths rang out, emotion and passion speeding air and blood through them. Unbridled yearning creased his face. Pupils wide, the brown of his eyes was a mere suggestion as he challenged her to see his honesty.

“There, Charlie, that’s my secret.”

Her tongue touched her lip, tasting him as her mind spun in kaleidoscope swirls. Bastian had just kissed her. Not the light goodbye and hello kisses of before, but a flat-out fiery French kiss from the east side of heaven. Her trembling fingers pressed against her mouth, holding the last trace of him.

“I-I’ve always known you were attracted to me.”

His brows arched. “Attracted? Is that all that kiss showed you?”

“Look, maybe the sex talk tonight got a little—”

“Don’t belittle this. What I feel for you is real. I’ve been feeling it for over a year, maybe longer.”

Fear forced tears into her eyes and burned her throat. Things were changing this very second. “Don’t.”

“It’s too late. You wanted to know, so know everything. I’m more than attracted to you. I love you. I love you not only as a friend, as my best friend, the best damn friend I’ve ever had, but as a woman. I want you in my life, in my bed and in my heart. Friendship isn’t enough anymore. I want more.”

Hot tears blinded her. She shoved away from him, thrusting off his hands as he reached for her. A sob replaced the moan in her chest.

“You just ruined everything.”

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