Slim & Erin
A dozen days—and nights—to explore all the possibilities…
Tobias “Slim” Jackson has the perfect life as a pilot on Gansett Island in the summer and in Florida in the winter. He’s happiest when he’s in the air, or at least that was the case before last summer when he met Erin Barton, Gansett Island’s newest lighthouse keeper. Now he can’t seem to find his usual enthusiasm for flying, winter in the sunny South or anything that doesn’t include her. Erin has been stuck on pause since she lost her twin brother. She’ll tell you herself that her life has been a hot mess since Toby died. After dropping out of law school, she’s flitted from one pointless job to another, existing rather than truly living. Then she comes to Gansett Island to take over as the new lighthouse keeper and meets Slim, who happens to share her beloved brother’s first name. That small coincidence is enough to convince Erin that she needs to spend more time with the dashing pilot—except for the fact that he’s spending the winter more than a thousand miles from her. Now Slim’s come home to Gansett for the holidays and to hopefully pick up where he left off with Erin. He’s got twelve days before he’s due back in Florida to finish out the remainder of his winter obligations. A lot can happen in twelve days, but will it be enough to convince Erin that it’s time to start truly living again? Read Slim and Erin’s story and catch up with the rest of the Gansett Island cast in Desire After Dark!.
Desire After Dark
(Gansett Island Series, Book 15)
By Marie Force
Sometimes we have to go back to go forward, and that is the case with Desire After Dark, which picks up the Gansett Island timeline the day after Big Mac and Linda’s anniversary party in Celebration After Dark. In that book, Slim Jackson came home to Gansett for his friends’ party—and to pick up where he left off the previous autumn with Erin Barton, the island’s new lighthouse keeper.
Desire After Dark covers the weeks between the anniversary party and Evan and Grace’s destination wedding. You’ll see a few things that were mentioned in Celebration from differing points of view. The next book, Light After Dark, featuring Big Mac’s daughter, Mallory Vaughn, will jump forward to the spring and the long-awaited arrival of the Lawry twins, among other exciting events on Gansett Island.
I know I say this same thing every time, but I can’t believe we’re at book 15 with Gansett and still going strong, with no end in sight. I’ve got lots of ideas for upcoming books, and I thank my faithful readers for continuing to support the Gansett Island Series five years after Maid for Love debuted.
When you’re finished reading Desire After Dark, join the Reader Group at www.facebook.com/groups/DesireAfterDark/where you’ll be eligible for release week giveaways and other fun things! Remember that spoilers are allowed and encouraged in the reader group, so don’t join until after you read. At the end of the book, read about other release week giveaways, including a weekend for two at my Beachcomber Cottage in Rhode Island, which includes airfare, rental car, dinner with me and my local team and a welcome basket with signed books and swag. This is available ONLY during release week, May 23-29, so read and enter before the deadline!
Thank you, as always, to my amazing behind-the-scenes team, led by my majordomo, Chief Operating Officer Julie Cupp, CMP, along with Lisa Cafferty, CPA, Holly Sullivan, Isabel Sullivan, Nikki Colquhoun, Cheryl Serra, Ashley Lopez and Courtney Lopes. I couldn’t do what I do without their support and hard work, as well as that of my husband, Dan, who runs the home front while I write. Thank you to my fantastic editorial team of Linda Ingmanson and Joyce Lamb as well as my beta readers Anne Woodall, Kara Conrad, Ronlyn Howe and Holly Sullivan. Big thanks to Sarah Spate Morrison, family nurse practitioner, for keeping me straight on medical details and for not telling her mom that she gets to read the books early.
Most of all, thank you to my extraordinarily supportive readers, who make everything possible. I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
On the morning after Slim Jackson came home to Gansett Island, Erin Barton awoke to the scents of his cologne and starch on the dress shirt he’d worn to the McCarthys’ anniversary party. At some point, he’d discarded the suit coat he’d been wearing when he arrived.
She didn’t remember falling asleep with him on the sofa, or how they’d ended up snuggled together under a blanket. His chest made for a comfortable pillow, and his arms around her had kept her from tumbling off the sofa during the night. The last thing she recalled was kissing him—soft, flirty kisses that hadn’t gone much beyond lips stroking lips, with the promise of more to come.
The thought of that promise had her skin tingling with awareness of the man sleeping next to her. After they’d connected last fall, he’d left the island to work in Florida during the off-season. She’d been counting the days until she could see him again, which wasn’t something she did very often. In fact, she couldn’t recall the last time she’d looked forward to seeing any man.
Before he arrived last night, she’d tried to prepare herself for disappointment. Maybe the connection they’d forged months ago in person and maintained through texts and phone calls and FaceTime chats would’ve waned in the many weeks they’d spent apart. But it took only a few minutes in his magnetic presence to know the opposite was true.
Their connection was alive and well, and they had twelve days together to explore where it might lead. Though she’d enjoyed their many entertaining conversations over the last few months, Erin didn’t know where she wanted their “flirtation” to lead. She hadn’t been seriously involved with a man in years and wasn’t sure she had what it took to be in a relationship anymore—or if she even wanted a serious entanglement at this point in her life.
The last man she’d been serious about had been during law school, before she lost her twin brother in the 9/11 attacks on New York City, and her carefully crafted life fell apart in the aftermath of unimaginable loss. By the time she came up for air, the man she’d once planned to marry was long gone, not that she could blame him. The poor guy had tried, Lord knows he’d tried, but there had been no consoling her.
Thinking about those dark days was never a good idea, especially today when she had something far more positive to focus on. She moved carefully to disentangle herself from Slim’s embrace, hoping he would sleep awhile longer. He’d been tired last night from the long day in the air, flying from Florida to Rhode Island for the McCarthys’ party—and to see her.
Erin went upstairs to make herself presentable. She also couldn’t recall the last time she’d spent the night with a man. It had been a while, long before she moved to Gansett Island hoping to jumpstart her stalled life.
If the first few months on Gansett were any indication, the move had been a good one. Thanks to her close friend, the former lighthouse keeper, Jenny Wilks—now Jenny Martinez—Erin had been introduced to an amazing group of new friends. And she’d met Tobias Fitzgerald “Slim” Jackson Junior, the sweet, sexy pilot who’d come to her rescue after she sprained her ankle on a dark island road last September.
Thinking about that night made her feel giddy and breathless, which was silly, really. At thirty-eight, she was far too old for such foolishness. Regardless, he’d charmed his way into her life that night. He’d been dropping in regularly ever since, mostly via phone, text and FaceTime, until last night when he showed up in person, sparking more of that giddiness that seemed to happen any time he was around.
He’d met her parents at Jenny’s wedding in October, and they’d immediately adored him and tuned in to the crackling attraction between them. That had been a great night, capped off by a magical good-night kiss when he brought her home. But then he’d left the island for three months to work in Florida, and Erin had been surprised by how much she’d missed him.
He’d been a terrible flirt from that first night. Thinking about what he’d said to her the second night could still make her shiver all these months later. After she’d agreed to have dinner with him—once she was off the crutches—he’d stated his intentions rather boldly.
“I’m also persistent. If you’re going to make me wait until the crutches are gone, I guess I’ll have to come by to visit every day and make a pest of myself so you don’t forget about me.”
“You’re going to drive me crazy, aren’t you?”
“Baby, that’s the very least of what I want to do with you.”
Thinking about that now made her smile. In addition to his sexy good looks, she loved how easygoing he was, how funny and confident. She loved calling him out when he got too cocky, and he made her laugh—a lot.
The thing she found most attractive about him, however, was his kindness, especially during the days leading up to Jenny’s wedding. He’d understood how difficult it was for Erin to see her beloved brother’s fiancée marry another man, even though she was thrilled for Jenny and Alex. Slim had provided the kind of support she would’ve expected from a longtime friend rather than a new one, and he’d helped to get her through what might’ve been a crisis otherwise. No matter what else happened between them, she’d always be thankful to him for that.
She took her hair out of the messy bun it had been in last night and brushed it until it fell in soft waves past her shoulders. After brushing her teeth and putting on a bra under her T-shirt, Erin crept down the stairs, taking a subtle glance at the handsome man still sleeping on her sofa, before continuing on to the kitchen to make coffee. While she waited for the coffee to percolate, she gazed at the collage of family pictures on the fridge, zeroing in on Toby’s smiling face. He’d be gone fifteen years later this year, but to her it might’ve been fifteen minutes. She missed him desperately, even after all this time.
It had taken a while, a couple of years, actually, for her to realize she would simply never get over losing him. So she’d stopped trying, which had freed up the emotional energy she’d spent railing at the circumstances under which he died. She smiled back at him now, thankful for the photos, the memories, the reminders that he’d once existed and had been closer to her than anyone, other than Jenny, of course.
Though the photos were displayed in a tidy arrangement, Erin straightened them as she did every morning, in a pattern of left to right. Left side first. Always. Keeping up that ritual and many others was the only way to prevent further catastrophe, or so she told herself. Her obsessive routine was interrupted when an arm slid around her from behind and whiskers scraped against her neck.
A shiver of sensation traveled down her backbone. “Morning.”
“You forgot to kick me out last night.”
“So I did. You were tired after flying all day. I didn’t have the heart to kick you out.”
“That’s awfully nice of you to say since you haven’t even let me buy you dinner yet.”
Erin gave his belly a playful poke with her elbow. “I’m beginning to think this dinner date is never going to happen.”
“Oh, it’s happening. Tonight, in fact.”
“I have plans tonight.” She poured two cups of coffee. “How do you like it?”
“Black is good.”
With his hands on her hips, he turned her to face him. “What are these plans of which you speak?”
She handed him the mug and looked up at him, dazzled by his gorgeous face, the warm brown eyes, the sleep-ruffled hair, the scruff on his jaw and the lips that had kissed her so tenderly the night before. “Alex and Jenny are having everyone over.”
“Then we’ll do dinner tomorrow night, yes?”
“Sure, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” Erin loved to goad him, something she’d never felt comfortable doing with other men. But Slim was nothing if not comfortable to be around.
His eyes lit up with amusement as he took a drink of coffee. “I believe you’re underestimating me.”
“Would I do that?”
“Yes, I believe you would. But that’s okay. I do my best work when the expectations are low.” He wrapped a strand of her hair around his finger. “Your hair has gotten long since the fall.”
“I decided to grow it out. You’ve seen that on FaceTime.”
Shaking his head, he said, “You always have it up.” He ran his fingers through the long strands. “I like it.”
“Thanks,” she said, unnerved by the intense way he looked at her.
“I need to head over to my place and see about getting the water turned on and firing up Big Bertha, the temperamental furnace that takes three hours to warm up.”
“Oh, well… Um, you could stay here if it’s easier than opening up your place.” The words were out of her mouth before she could take the time to consider what she was offering.
A raised brow was his only immediate response. While she held her breath, waiting to hear what he would say, he took another sip of coffee.
“Unless you’d rather—”
He laid his index finger over her lips. “I’d rather be wherever you are, but I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s no imposition. I have hot water and heat and everything you’d need.”
“You left out one very important feature of your lovely offer.”
“What?” she asked, genuinely confused.
He touched his lips to hers. “You’re here, and since you’re offering twelve days of all Erin, all the time, I gratefully accept your kind offer.”
“Do I need to spell out what I’m offering and what I’m not offering?”
Smiling down at her, he said, “No need. We’ll go with the flow and see what transpires.”
Erin laid her hand on his chest, feeling the strong beat of his heart. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like this.”
Covering her hand with his, he quirked that sexy eyebrow again. “Like what?”
“This. You, me, us. Hours on the phone, looking forward to seeing someone, dating.”
“You make that sound like a dirty word.”
“It has been for me.”
“Well, you haven’t had the supreme pleasure of dating Tobias Fitzgerald Jackson Junior. He’s in a whole other league from all other men you’ve had the misfortune of knowing.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “And he speaks of himself in the third person, because that’s so attractive.”
A rakish grin lit up his face. “You know it, baby.” He put his coffee cup on the counter. “I’m going to grab my bag out of the car and then borrow your shower, if you don’t mind.”
“A daily shower is part of the lighthouse bed-and-breakfast package.”
“Oh yum, what’s for breakfast?”
Erin groaned. “Aw, jeez, I walked right into that one, didn’t I?”
“You don’t have to cook,” he said, chuckling at her comment. “I could take you out somewhere.”
“No need. I have stuff here. I’ll scrounge up something edible.”
“You sure about this, sweetheart? If you’re having second thoughts about your spontaneous offer, I can get out of your hair for now and come back later. Totally up to you.”
Erin loved that he called her sweetheart and appreciated that he’d given her an out, but she didn’t want out. She wanted him to stay. She wanted to spend every minute of the next twelve days with him, not waiting for him to come back. That didn’t mean she wasn’t scared senseless of how attached to him she might be when it came time for him to leave again.
“I’m not having second thoughts about you staying,” she said.
“Then what?” He touched the furrow between her brows that she hadn’t realized was there.
“I’m concerned about what happens when the twelve days are up.”
“That’s easy. You come back to Florida with me and hang out for the rest of the winter.”
Erin wondered if her shock registered on her face. “I’m not going to Florida with you.”
“Why not? What’ve you got to do here that would be more fun than hanging out in the warm sunshine with me?”
Nothing. There was nothing here that would be better than spending the rest of the winter with him in Florida. But she couldn’t do that. “I do have a life here, you know, and a job.”
“That takes five minutes a day, and Jenny could do it for you since the landscaping business is shut down for the winter.”
“They’re not completely shut down. They’re still plowing snow and selling Christmas trees.”
“She would do it for you, Erin. You know she would.”
Yes, Jenny would do it for her, but running the lighthouse wasn’t the only reason she couldn’t go.
But before she could fall down that particular rabbit hole, he came to her rescue once again. “Let’s not worry about that today when we have so many better things to do, such as getting a tree for this place. It’s four days before Christmas. Where’s your tree?”
“I didn’t bother to get one.” Since her brother died, she hadn’t bothered with a lot of things that used to bring her joy. A tree always seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
“We need to rectify that immediately. We can’t very well spend the holidays together and not get a tree. I have needs that must be met.”
The double meaning wasn’t lost on her. “Is that right?”
“Absolutely! It’s Christmas. That means we have to bake and cook and wrap presents. Lots to do and not a lot of time left to do it before the big day.” He was still talking as he headed down the stairs. “Be right back!”
Erin watched him go, oddly elated by his overabundance of Christmas spirit when that would normally annoy her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d given a crap about the holidays. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. The holidays were one of many things she’d stopped giving a crap about after her brother was cruelly murdered along with three thousand other innocent souls.
Erin couldn’t help but wonder what a lighthearted, happy-go-lucky man like Slim would think of the darkness that dwelled inside her. What would he think when he found out that she hadn’t stepped foot on an airplane in nearly fifteen years and, if she had her way, never would again? There were a lot of things about her that would probably be a huge turnoff to a guy like Slim, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy this interlude with him while it lasted and then pick up her regular life already in progress after he left.
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.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge